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Living Jewishly Lately

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JCC Chicago’s Shabbat on the Lake. Photo credit: Mishkan Chicago

The last gasp of summer is upon us, so I'm making it my business to get outside and enjoy as many activities "al fresco" as I can before the blustery winter weather inevitably makes its sinister return (Sorry, not a winter fan).

In that vein, I went to a lovely outdoor gathering last week: JCC Chicago's Shabbat on the Lake. As I rounded the corner and walked along Lake Shore Drive toward Diversey Parkway, it dawned on me that it's been quite a long time since my last Shabbat celebration. I was a casual Hillel attendee in college, enjoyed some Shabbat festivities when I lived in France, but a gathering with approximately 500 Jews on a Friday night isn't anything I'd ever experienced. I felt a slight shiver of trepidation, but as I saw the event sprawling out of the welcoming crowd in a lush green park, I advanced with a spring in my step and geared myself up to shmooze.

The setting sun cast a lovely glow on the festivities. As I gathered my bearings and scoped out the scene, I noticed a drum circle to my left, a few discussion groups scattered about and some pre-Sabbath yoga to boot. I'd shown up after work -- a.k.a. blue jeans, semi-cute top, potentially disastrous hair -- while most people were dressed neatly in outdoor-ready synagogue attire.

Seeing circles of friends congregate around the park, I couldn't help but think this little gathering resembled a hive of bees. Productive, chattering, buzzing -- filling the area with warmth and activity. Fun fact: Dreaming about bees can symbolize a moment in your life when you're particularly social, when you are balancing a lot of interactions at once. Whether or not that's entirely accurate, it's hard to be sure. In any event, it's a fitting metaphor, don't you think? After prayers were said and dinner devoured, a quiet hum fell over the crowd, the evening easing into a state of blissful contentment.

What I love about going to events like this one is that you never know just whom you might run into. The friend who invited me is a sorority sister. As soon as I arrived, I was joined by my friend, her sister and a healthy smattering of fellow University of Illinois grads. We were quickly joined by her boyfriend, his friends from the local Hillel, Israelis visiting, working and enjoying Chicago, and so on. I spotted friends from college, random acquaintances from high school and I even bumped into a friend from my French conversation group.

It's gatherings like this that remind me: no matter how large a city can feel, a sense of belonging to a community can make the world seem small.

Another college chum is a recently ordained rabbi settling into her new post in Chicago. She put out a call for ideas on how to reach out to people our age, not quite just out of school, but who want to be engaged with Judaism in a way that is comfortable for them and suits their lifestyle. I'm excited to hear what my friends will have to say.

What suits me is taking a moment to engage in Judaism in a way that doesn't feel forced. Something that isn't necessarily focused on "meeting singles" (even though those events are pretty fun, too) is a breath of fresh air. As the High Holidays approach, it feels like a mighty fine time to delve into what it means to be a participant in the community for me, and how I'd like to get involved in the future.

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