Confronting Religion in the Holy City

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Living in Jerusalem, I have found that the presence of religion influenced many aspects of my personal life, often in ways unexpected. While Judaism has typically played an important role in my identity as a Jewish woman, my exposure to it while studying abroad was less a choice of my own and rather a product of the environment in which I was living.

From a practical perspective, Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest) is difficult to navigate as all public transportation and shops close from around 4 p.m. on Friday evening until Saturday evening at sunset. This requires planning meals and trips ahead of time. My friends and I will often cook together during these holidays partially out of tradition and partially because there is not much else to do except enjoy each other’s company.

On one of the holiest Jewish days of the year, a couple friends and I were not able to go shopping for food before the holiday. After realizing that all of the grocery stores and restaurants were closed around us, we pieced together two days of meals on what remnants of food we had left. One of the evenings, our mish-mash of left overs turned into a tasty holiday dinner of fresh salad, fruit, eggplant and tomato pasta, and of course, hummus.

Besides the practicality of navigating the religion in Jerusalem, religion also influenced my day-to-day activities. During my 15-minute ride on the light rail into city center, practicing Jews, Muslims, and Christians often surround me on their way to prayer. I’d also see Orthodox men sit huddled in the corner of a noisy train uttering the evening or afternoon prayers.

Occasionally, my friends and I would adventure into the old city after class – sometimes we paid a “casual” visit to religious sites, such as the Western Wall or the Church of Holy Sepulcher. I found it ironic that millions of people travel across the world to come to these holy places, and yet for us these sites were our doorstep, easily reachable in under thirty minutes. Each time I visited the Western Wall it continued to be special, but the lack of effort required for me to visit altered my experiences.

In Hebrew, there is a word called “kavanah,” or intention, which is used to describe the way in which one approaches Jewish prayers or rituals with the intention of one’s heart or mind. Although I continue to observe Judaism in the same ways here as I would at home in America, I feel there is a difference in the intentionality behind my observance in the U.S. versus the Holy City. In America, every act of religious devotion is a personal choice. Each time I attend a Shabbat dinner, join a prayer service or observe other Jewish laws, it is a choice of my own free will. I find that personal choice an important part of my own religious observance.

I question whether the choices I made in Jerusalem to observe my religion hold the same weight. The society in the Holy City automatically provides the time and space for observance and made me question if each time I practice Judaism, the act is less an intentionally choice I make and more a product of the environment in which I am living.

Jennifer Gurev is a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics major at Claremont McKenna College. She studied abroad with IFSA at the Diversity and Coexistence program in Jerusalem, Israel in Fall 2018.

Article by Jennifer Gurev