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Finding faith: Where I fit into America’s changing religious landscape

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For many people, religion is something you’re born into. You are brought to Sunday School, maybe to youth group, and from there you either stick with it or diverge. But if you’ve gone religion shopping, you’re not alone. A study recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 44 percent of American adults have switched religious affiliations at some point. I am now in the process of becoming one of them—but that wasn’t until I got to NU.

Thanks to my parents, I had been pretty much doomed from the start. My mother was raised Lutheran and had since rebelled against organized religion, and my father, a bona fide, bar-mitzvah’d Jew, hadn’t had time for Yahweh in years. So when my brother and I came along, they scrambled to find us a religious home. My mom found what she thought was the perfect compromise: Unitarian Universalism. Absent any concrete creed and with an emphasis on individual beliefs and human rights, it seemed just wishy-washy enough to fit us. Plus the flax-munching, Birkenstock-wearing stereotype fit my family’s neo-hippie vibe pretty well.

But when the First Communion wave hit and my girlfriends hit their first religious milestone, I envied their dresses as well as the formality. By the time confirmation and the bar mitzvah scene rolled around, I had had enough of the laid-back environment and wanted some pomp and circumstance. After pleading with my youth group advisor for some kind of ritual I could invite my friends to, he let us go through a “coming of age” ceremony. I was pumped, until we all walked in, sat down cross-legged on pillows and began writing stream-of-consciousness essays.

It wasn’t that I minded Unitarian Universalism; I loved the people, the intellectualism and the freedom. But it never felt like a real religion to me. Growing up unable to define myself by my faith left me craving the heritage and identity that comes with being a part of an established community. It was always the most starkly apparent difference; from the charm necklaces I didn’t get to the holidays and services I didn’t have. I never felt culturally connected, I had no ancestors or traditions to respect and learn from — hell, I didn’t even know how to pray.

The only taste of traditional religion I had were Jewish holidays with my dad’s family. Everything about it warmed me: the big family coming together, the long, rich history, and the constant reminders of how far we had come and how united we were as a community. When we read prayers in Hebrew, I felt like I was doing something more real, more meaningful. I remember looking ahead at the English translations so I could understand the Hebrew I was to recite. There were rituals, customs, traditions and most of all a distinctive culture I wanted to be a part of. I began to realize how at home I felt.

Having the freedom to find my own beliefs let me figure out exactly what I wanted from religion: a structured doctrine, something to turn to for support, and with a clear outlined belief set I agreed with. I researched Judaism more deeply, and talked to Jewish relatives and friends about what their faiths meant to them. The more I heard people talking about their deep love and commitment to the tenets and the ideals of Judaism, the more I began to think it was for me.

During my senior year I started reading the Torah, expecting, at the very least, to take it for its metaphorical value. I was so comforted and invigorated by the philosophies it expressed. The teachings, the stories, the ideas about valuing family, tradition and your Jewish identity—I now understood why so many people had died to protect it. Later that year I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and for the first time I felt truly connected to my heritage. I had never felt so spiritually alive as I did that day. As devastating as the content was, I left feeling so hopeful and proud to think I could count myself as a member of such a strong lineage.

Realizing that I had found a religious home was one of the happiest moments I’ve had. I studied the faith deeply over the summer, but had no opportunities to attend services, since my parents didn’t go and there weren’t any synagogues nearby. So heading into freshman year at NU, I nervously signed up for Hillel’s Freshman Fest. It was a great experience and an amazing start to my new identities—a college student and a converting Jewish adult. Although I was terrified I wasn’t “Jewish enough” and wouldn’t fit in, the Mel Brooks- and Jackie Mason-centric upbringing my dad had enforced got me through it.

Since coming to NU, I’ve met with rabbis from both Hillel and Chabad, and have continued to study on my own and occasionally attend reform services. At a time when most students’ religions are so worn to them that they’re already wearing off, I’m still just starting to fall in love with mine. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

This post first appeared in  North by Northwestern  on March 4, 2008.

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