My family and I live in Charleston, South Carolina.
Just saying those words when I visit my family in the Five Towns, where I grew up, elicits stares of shock. At least when we lived in Houston, Texas, where my husband served as an assistant Rabbi before he assumed the pulpit in Charleston, New Yorkers could assume (and did) that we meant we lived on Houston Street in downtown New York (and just weren’t pronouncing it correctly). But Charleston…they just can’t understand.
They ask me with looks of disbelief, “So… do you like it?” And I look at them, not sure how to possibly convey all of my thoughts and emotions in a one-line answer.
Charleston is a completely different world than the one I grew up in.
It is a world where we sit in our succah on our side lawn and watch everyone who passes by do a double take and hear them wonder aloud, “What is that thing?” Living in downtown Charleston means we have one of the few chanukiyot in a sea of Christmas trees and we light it with pride, feeling this is truly pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle). We live in a city where our former pediatrician has never heard of Yom Kippur and a city where my husband goes to the grocery store and hears a woman whisper into her phone that she now knows she will have a blessed day because she saw a rabbi (assuming this because of my husband’s kippah). It is a city where you can get into a conversation with your Christian manicurist and find out that she’s also fasting for Taanit Esther, and a city where you can come across a random gas station on the outskirts of town that has an Israeli flag waving beside their American flag, not because it is owned by Jews but because it is owned by Evangelical Christians. It is also a city where I was stopped by a policeman when I was running one morning because he was worried that I was running away from someone; as he said, “Who in their right mind would go running in a skirt?”
To be Jewish here, is to be different. Living in Charleston means the results of the Pew study on assimilation were hardly a surprise to us, the numbers even encouraging compared to what we see. We meet some Jews who are as far from Judaism as one can imagine and as much as it makes my heart ache, I have begun to understand it. It requires a tremendous amount of courage to be different and the Jewish population is so small here. It took moving to Charleston to understand why the numbers are what they are.
But ironically, it also took moving to Charleston, South Carolina to understand and appreciate how truly special and meaningful the religion I’ve been practicing my whole life really is.
Growing up in a community that featured the Diagon Alley of Judaism, with tznius clothes, kosher restaurants and sheitel shops galore, I always took my observance for granted. Who ever thought to check for a kosher label when everything in Gourmet Glatt was kosher? Who ever thought twice about carrying on Shabbat when there was always an eruv? (We have an eruv in Charleston too, but there are some areas that aren’t included.) Who ever thought about the agony of having to send your 14-year-old child away to another city for high school so they could continue their Jewish education, when the question for us was merely which of the many Jewish high schools to choose from? Who ever thought about being nervous to take off from work for Shabbat, when losing your job because of Shabbat observance was a plague of the 1920s? That doesn’t happen today… or so I thought until it happened to one of our shul members. In my New York community, Judaism was as much as the dominant culture as it was the religion. In Charleston, one truly has to go against the local culture to observe. It’s a community where you don’t practice because “everyone is doing it”- no one is. It’s a community where you don’t practice because it’s what you’ve always done- there is almost no one in Charleston who is frum from birth.
Which is why the following is so amazing: We have many families who keep kosher to varying degrees, despite having to order in kosher meat from Atlanta, which can sometimes be a pain. We have committed mikva users despite the fact that our mikva is not new and beautiful and since it is filled and drained with each use, the water is sometimes too hot or too cold (and when not given enough notice, empty). We have minyanim three times a day, no easy feat with such a small observant community.
When a boy turns Bar Mitzvah in our community, he truly matters, and it’s incredible to see how many of our day school students wake up early before school to attend morning minyan. I drive by our shul on the way to school in the morning and I watch the men leaving; they are Baalei Teshuva, our community leaders, and non-observant Jews, Ashkenazim and Sefardim; men of different nationalities, ages and hashkafot. It is truly the most heartwarming sight.
What has been the most powerful experience about living in Charleston, is witnessing an interest and hunger for Judaism from those who do not observe, which has made the expression “the Pintele Yid” more real than I could have ever imagined. It is rare for me to take a Shabbat walk and not hear a “Shabbat Shalom” as I am “bageled” by a Jewish passerby, the uniform of the observant Jewish woman giving me away. And when my I or husband meet these Jews on the street, they are usually happy to come for Shabbat dinner, and more often than not, there are repeat appearances. Why, I often wonder, would a young professional who is so far away from Judaism want to spend his/her Friday night with a rabbi, learning about Judaism rather than hitting the bars on nearby King Street? And yet, watching them, it’s clear to see how much they enjoy the escape from the hectic-ness of life, the camaraderie and stimulating conversations, and the simplicity of eating good food while sitting beside the glowing Shabbat candles.
We see more and more young people moving towards Shabbat observance, which sometimes means having to move into a frum – and usually more expensive, neighborhood. Why, I ask them, are they willing to make such a sacrifice? And they answer that they find that with the constant pull of electronics, with the inescapability of cell phones and Facebook, that they’re always on and they need that time off. They crave family time, quiet time, and spiritual time and they’ve found that in Shabbos. As the aforementioned man who lost his job due to becoming Shomer Shabbat told me, once you discover Shabbat, you just can’t live without it. Growing up with Shabbat as a given, who ever thought that way? Who really saw it as a treasure?
We have a number of non-observant women who have started to use our mikva. They do it not because they feel they have to, but because they truly feel that the mikva brings a renewal and excitement to their marriages and spirituality to their lives. They could never imagine how uplifted I feel each time I take them.
I have studied and worked in Jewish Education my whole life and until I watched people of varying ages, levels of religiosity and knowledge sitting in my living room on a Shabbat afternoon, glued as they watched my husband take seforim off the shelf to answer their questions, I never truly understood the power and pull of Torah. In these people, I have seen a hunger to learn- this from people, most of whom did not attend Jewish day school, most of whom do not speak Hebrew but who see a power in Torah that I never saw. Every Shabbat, a man who works as a researcher at a local hospital starts a parsha discussion at “Table 2” and anyone interested in taking apart the weekly parsha joins in. The discussions get heated with verses and commentaries thrown at each other in English, Hebrew and French, an organic multi-lingual Beit Midrash created in a Kiddush room by ordinary people who are hungry to learn, to analyze and to find discrepancies and sometimes even answers. In 31 years of Judaic learning, I don’t think I have ever been so fascinated by Torah study or learned so much. I look forward to Table 2 all week and learn the Parsha in preparation with a vigor and attention to detail I never had before
What I’ve come to realize is there is something powerful about Judaism, about Torah learning, about mikva, about Shabbos that fascinates the cool and successful young professional who ostensibly “has it all” until they stumble upon the world I always took for granted and realize, there’s so much more. In a world where so many young Jews are looking to Buddhism and yoga for meaning and spirituality, our people have found it in our own religion. What they also don’t realize is that when the light bulb turns on in their eyes as they become inspired, it makes me take a second look at the religious life I’ve always led and through their eyes, appreciate its beauty and power.
So do I like living in Charleston? It is certainly easier to be frum in New York and I don’t deny that I engulf frozen yogurt and binge on Carlos and Gabby’s and Junee’s when I visit. I can’t tell you there aren’t days with heartbreak and frustration. What I can say is that I have met some of the most inspiring people I could have ever imagined. My life is incredibly meaningful. It is also humbling. It is not easy to be a rebbetzin, a position of religious leadership, in a community where nearly everyone who is observant is a Baal Teshuva, and their sacrifices and commitment make me feel unworthy to stand at the helm. What I can say with certainty is that every day, my community challenges me to be better and teaches me what living Judaism is truly about.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.