In elementary school most of my friends celebrated Christmas and a few of them celebrated Hanukkah. But I didn’t know anyone who celebrated both like my family does. I made Christmas cookies with my dad and ate Hannukah gelt with my mom. I knew the words to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and the Hannukah prayers. In middle school and high school, with winter break on the horizon, someone would inevitably write, “Merry Christmas” on a whiteboard. Once, I decided to add, “Happy Hanukkah.” Within five minutes someone erased it and wrote, “Jesus Rules.” I felt annoyed and disappointed but not surprised. Since my hometown doesn’t include a synagogue and most of them wouldn’t go anyways since they don’t practice Judaism, I expected this kind of thing from my classmates.
Like most people in high school, I tried to figure out my identity.
Since other people associated me with Judaism, I decided to embrace it. So, I started researching Judaism online. But reading Jewfaq.org during study hall didn’t give me a sense of connection with my heritage. So I told myself that once I got to college I would join a Jewish organization like Hillel or Chabad.
I attended a few Friday night Shabbat services freshman year at Rider University. Wearing the only nice clothes I owned, I’d walk about 15 minutes from campus to the Adath Israel Congregation. There I sat through the Conservative Jewish services even though I didn’t understand a single word of Hebrew. But the songs sounded nice and the Rabbi and Hazzan seemed pleased to see someone under the age of 30 in attendance. Since I didn’t plan to do anything else on Fridays, I kept going.
When I transferred to Temple University in the middle of my sophomore year, I started wearing a Star of David necklace and reached out to the Chabad Rabbi.
I asked him if we could do one-on-one study sessions. The internet failed to give me that sense of connection to Judaism but I hoped that lessons from a Rabbi would. He gave me a book to read. However, he didn’t offer any other form of education on Judaism. Eventually we stopped meeting and I went back to using Google. Still, I didn’t want to give up yet. I went to exactly one Shabbat dinner and half of a Purim party at Chabad, both packed with people who already knew each other and clearly felt at home at Chabad.
I felt even more out of place than ever.
Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I started giving up the moment I decided to leave the party early. I didn’t really feel anything. Numbness took over my body. In November of 2021, I co-wrote an article about Hanukkah celebrations for The Temple News with another Features Editor. Because Hanukkah lasts for eight nights, we talked to sources before Hanukkah started and followed up with them throughout the week to make sure they did what they told us they planned on doing.
At the start of the week, we only received two student sources and needed a minimum of three so I went to Chabad celebrations to find sources there. I showed up for four out of eight nights, not Eden MacDougall, a Jewish guy looking to celebrate with friends, but as Eden MacDougall, the Assistant Features Editor with a deadline. As I watched the Rabbi and his family light their Menorah, I knew I should feel inspired, but I just felt antsy and worried about getting more student interviews.
After that, I went home and lit my own candles and felt nothing. But I lit them again the next night anyway.
Even though I’m not going to lie to myself and say I’m going to try Shabbat dinner again, Judaism still left a big impact on my life and I can’t ignore that. So even though I don’t feel connected to Judaism, I still wear my Star of David necklace to remind myself of my journey. I will still celebrate Hannukah but if I forget to light the candles one night, it won’t feel like a big deal to me. If I never step foot in a synagogue again, I’m okay with that. But I will still say hi to the Chabad Rabbi if I see him on the street.