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In all honesty, when I first began this project I was a little hesitant. As someone who identifies as Jewish, but not religious, I felt that it was too comfortable. I had gone to too many Bar/Bat mitzvahs, I had sung the passover songs, I had eaten matzoh ball soup and babka. Why not explore a new religion that was different? Then, when talking to my dad, I learned that I actually live in an eruv, without even knowing it (the Greater Boston eruv that takes up two towns). While in some ways, I could have done this exact project at home, I realized that I didn’t. Though I live across the street from Orthodox Jews and down the road from a Jewish High School, I have never taken the effort to really interact with these people, to learn why they observe Judaism like they do, and to think about what my Jewish identity means in relation to theirs. Maybe doing a project that reflected my home, though in a very different setting, would teach me something about my own identity.
Throughout walking around the eruv, visiting synagogues and talking to a range of people, I have mulled over the question of what does Judaism really mean. Is it possible that it can both be an intense cultural ethnicity and life outlook, and simultaneously be a faith with set of laws and a strict way of life that even someone who converted can understand? What does it mean when these concepts mingle in the same small community? The people that we have talked with, often having met them serendipitously, have told us such rich stories about their Judaism. From still feeling like an immigrant and an outsider, to being conflicted over saving someones life because it went against Shabbat, to going against her parents wishes to find a connection to God. I have to wonder if these stories are unique, or if everyone has them. Does something about the history of Jews, of oppression, community and assimilation, make it a religion of internal conflict, where people aren’t exactly sure how to practice? Even though the Orthodox and the secular don’t seem to have much of a genuine interaction in the eruv, I was surprised by how much I could relate to everyone, even to those who have a style of life I’ve taught myself not to agree with. From bonding over the same New York bagel shop at the Beth El seder, to laughing during a screening of A Serious Man with St. Louis Park residents, to watching the children run around the Darchei Noam Service, I finally understood what it meant to be a people. Though there are tensions, what brought everyone together was a want for connection and community, and to feel a part of something.
As we heard stories and unpacked peoples experiences in the eruv, it became increasingly more complicated. I often didn’t know what to feel. I remember going into an Orthodox synagogue and having a gut reaction against the separated genders. But then I talked to a woman who felt that the split genders made her feel superior, that she already had a level of spirituality that men need to work for. I understood one person who was angry that she couldn’t get enough money for her house. But then I listened to another person explaining how much she’s gotten from moving into the eruv, and it made sense to me that the community’s trying to help people move in. In all, I’ve realized that I should embrace this complexity; it shows its realness. Of course, this means that there is so much more to this neighborhood than we could ever try to nail down. I tried my best to represent the complexity of this community unbiasedly, but know that I came into the project with my own sentiments and feelings. I am so grateful for everyone who welcomed us into their community, openly told us their stories, and worked with us through their personal questions. Not only has it taught me so much about Judaism in St. Louis Park, it has allowed me to reflect on my own Jewish identity, in a way that I never thought I would.