Leaving My Syrian Jewish Community Brought Me Closer to Home

Until moving across the country in June, I lived in the same Syrian Jewish neighborhood in Gravesend, Brooklyn for 22 years. Moving across the country is certainly not the traditional path for my friends from Brooklyn. And my move has definitely put my family on edge. Some from my insular Syrian Jewish community say I am lost. I say I am following my heart – and that challenging people’s expectations of me has strengthened my faith in ways I couldn’t imagine.

I always thought there might be more outside my community, and my curiosity overrode any fear I might have had about exploring beyond my neighborhood. When I was in grade school, I would set up a lemonade stand on our street corner and talk to passersby. And when I got a little older, when my protective mother told me I wasn’t allowed, I took the subway to Manhattan with my friends and spoke to the strangers I met along the way. And interacting with those strangers — in a city full of immigrants, migrants, artists, inventors, and thinkers, made me itch more to explore the world around me.

Growing up, every kid on my block attended the same school. Everybody prayed at the same synagogue, ate at the same restaurants and shopped at the same stores. My neighborhood was my entire world. And while it might sound like all the Syrian Jews in my neighborhood were the same, there was one key distinction: those who were first- and second-generation Syrian Jews and those whose families had been here longer (and were therefore more Americanized).

My father was born in Syria and my mother is a first-generation Egyptian-American. My parents spoke Arabic growing up at home, especially when they didn’t want us kids to know what they were talking about. As a family, we always celebrated Shabbat. My mother and I would ensure the table and dinner was ready, while my father and brothers prepared to say the prayers.

My more Americanized friends assumed I would be the first to find a husband, a major accomplishment in a young woman’s life, considering that I was closer to our immigrant roots.

When my female classmates began dropping out of the 11th and 12th grades to get married, I started to research where I wanted to go to college. Higher education was not discussed in our house. My older brother hadn’t attended college, and I wasn’t expected to. Yet, I knew that a degree – not marriage – was going to be my path to adulthood.

In high school, I became the editor of my high school newspaper, and decided I wanted to study creative writing or journalism. Even when my parents realized they couldn’t stop my ambition to go to college, they didn’t agree with my major of choice. They believed if I was going to bother, I should pursue a more “substantial” degree so I could become a doctor or lawyer. To appease them, I applied as “undecided” and later confirmed journalism as my area of focus.

As I started my college applications, my life completely changed. My parents announced they were getting a divorce and, shortly after that, I broke my pelvis. I was required to spend an entire month of my senior year of high school in a rehabilitation center. I met another young Jewish woman who had broken both her legs. We sat in our hospital beds together, ate Ben & Jerry’s, and talked about our futures. When I had the energy, I immersed myself in college essays.

After that detour, I made it to Brooklyn College to pursue a degree in journalism. But my faith kept calling me back. In an effort to reconnect with the Jewish community I left behind by going to college, I became involved with Hillel. There, I was able to meet Jews with different beliefs than I, different backgrounds, traditions, and diversities. Exposure to new and different people and opportunities hadn’t made me run from my Judaism; it helped me see it from a new perspective.

This past May, I became the first person in my family to graduate college. Some relatives of mine still become flustered when I tell them I got a B.A. in Journalism. They ask me what I want to do with such degree, but I showed them as I left New York, and committed myself to spend the next two years as a fellow for Hillel, serving the Jewish students of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. My job: to come up with new and creative ways for Jewish students to explore their Judaism. Even though my mom is counting down the days for me to visit New York, and is constantly attempting to set me up with nice Syrian Jewish boys back home, she constantly reminds me of how proud she is of me.

Family and friends were quick to remind me that my decision to move to California will most likely prevent me from getting married any time soon. That’s okay with me. Though I am 2,800 miles from Brooklyn, I am closer to — and prouder of — where I started.

What my parents feared would take me away from our Syrian Jewish roots has brought me even closer to them; Those lemonade stands and subway rides are what put me on this path; I am exactly where I want to be.

Header Image via Stefanie Shank on giphy.

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