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An Outsider in the Woods

At Jews in the Woods, a spiritual retreat for college students, I tried to see how I’d fit in if I converted to Judaism

Anne Grant
May 04, 2012
Margarita Korol
Margarita Korol
Margarita Korol
Margarita Korol

Shortly after I arrived at Jews in the Woods—a spiritual Shabbaton at a campground in Rhode Island—on a Friday evening in March, I was approached by two girls who asked if I’d come with them for a moment. Following them over the hardened snow, I came to a small blue sedan loaded with food. Visibly nervous, they took turns explaining that, since sunset had fallen and very observant students would not eat meals carried inside by other Jews, they needed me, a gentile, to bring all of the food to the kitchen. To alleviate the discomfort of observant Jewish participants, I had been appointed the Shabbes goy.

My head was spinning; I was surprised, angry, humiliated. It was not the best way to start the weekend.

Yes, I’m a gentile, although these days I would probably describe myself as Jew-ish, with an emphasis on the ish. I’m a Jewish Studies major whose initial interest in Jewish history and culture has resulted in my increasing involvement in my university’s Jewish community. My affiliation with Judaism is primarily cultural, and many of my Jewish friends at school feel the same way. Meaning: We can recite lines from Curb Your Enthusiasm on command, but we can’t quote rabbinical commentary from the Talmud.

The prospect of converting—and learning more about the religious aspects of Judaism in the process—has become increasingly appealing throughout college. So, I was intrigued when a professor told me about Jews in the Woods, a pluralistic weekend retreat for students. I informed the event organizers that I was not Jewish, but would be happy to make the 13-hour drive with a friend to attend. This event would clearly encompass more religious content than anything I had attended before, and I thought I’d have a chance to learn more about Judaism. I just didn’t think I’d be the one asked to carry everyone else’s bags.

I didn’t exactly fit in at Jews in the Woods, as I’d soon figure out. But I most definitely learned quite a bit about Judaism.

At first, when the girls told me that they needed me to carry the food, I agreed, frazzled and too surprised to protest. I brought in two bags of food with an irate look on my face. But after collecting my thoughts as I returned to the car, I angrily quit the task and stalked up to the event’s tie-dye-clad student organizer and asked if we could talk alone.

For the next 20 minutes, I expressed my anger over my disrespectful (and, might I add, anachronistic) designation as the Shabbes goy. Are you serious?! I demanded. Reaching back into the annals of my memory for the little knowledge I had acquired about Jewish religious tradition, I clung to my understanding of Judaism’s affinity for justice. Remembering my many experiences in the tikkun olam-infused world of youth Jewish culture, I insisted that my appointment as the Shabbes goy was definitively un-Jewish. What about equitable treatment of others, not to mention the admonition in the Hebrew Bible to welcome the stranger? This weekend was supposed to be all about pluralism—so why was I the only one whose needs weren’t being met?

A funny thing happened. He apologized immediately and asked me how we could fix the situation together. With his kindness, he had stopped my one-woman show of anger in its tracks. I suggested meekly that he should appoint the other student leaders to retrieve the food and inform the religiously observant participants of the change in plans.

Then he asked me to describe how this experience had made me feel, as if my 20-minute lecture about justice and Judaism hadn’t already indicated my emotional state. I responded that this situation wasn’t about me; I said I hoped I would be just as angry if I were Jewish and this had happened to someone else. We pondered this together, and the idea spawned a conversation that spanned everything from religion to the prison system and continued for several hours. Unexpectedly, I had made a very cool new friend. I was impressed by this student—no pretension, and no annoying shows of male assertiveness. I felt humbled by the conversation. If this is how Jews address conflict, I thought, I could get used to this community. As we talked, other endearingly contrite students occasionally poked their heads into the doorway with worried expressions, and finally brought us the Shabbat dinner of lasagna and salad that we had missed.

Among these exceptionally tolerant individuals, I felt welcome. But feeling welcome certainly isn’t the same thing as actually belonging.

We finally decided to join the other Shabbaton participants, re-entering the great room to find a large circle of students sitting cross-legged on the floor and singing songs in Hebrew. While I enjoyed the music, it also triggered discomfort, a reminder of my ignorance and lack of belonging; obviously, I never learned these songs as a child.

I didn’t look like I belonged, either. My Paris-Hilton-goes-camping getup—a ridiculous fur-lined crocheted hat, an enormous brown flannel shirt, and the kind of faux-rugged suede boots worn by girls who typically spend their time inside—seemed ridiculous in contrast with the attire of many other students: boys in button-downs with glasses and velvet kippahs the size of cereal bowls, and girls in ankle-length floral skirts.

Despite feeling like an outsider, I enjoyed my conversations with the other students, who struck me as intelligent and conscientious. That night, I fell asleep in a bunk bed in a wood cabin next to the lake and down the gravel walkway from the main building. As I drifted off contentedly, I decided to embrace this sort-of wacky weekend.

Whoever said that observing Shabbat is boring was definitely wrong! Saturday morning, the sun rose with a brilliant intensity, dispelling the heavy clouds of the previous day and thawing the snow on the ground. I befriended a free-spirited Brown student and decided to attend a session of acro-yoga—which is how I found myself poised horizontally in mid-air, supported only by his feet. The day’s other activities included walks around the woods and study sessions about ethics and Jewish texts. I, for one, was having a good time. But I still wasn’t quite fitting in.

My conservative, WASP-y roots run deep, and it has always been somewhat difficult for me to relate to hardcore politically progressive Jews. The old Ralph Lauren bed sheets I had brought with me, emblazoned with tiny American flags, were good-naturedly mocked by one of the other students in my cabin, a super-liberal Peace Studies student who drily congratulated me for displaying my patriotism. Even in my interactions with the other students, I noticed behavioral differences. People were constantly hugging me and asking me to “process” my feelings and the events of the weekend together. Down to the details, everything was done with sensitivity; one of the Shabbaton’s organizers had even hung “female-identified” and “male-identified” signs on the restroom doors.

Aside from being exceptionally sensitive, most, if not all, of the Shabbaton participants also attended Ivy League schools. The unintentional Ivy League exceptionalism manifested itself frequently. On a walk in the woods, I witnessed the kind of introduction that, I imagine, only happens in the Ivy League. “You’re at Columbia?” “Yeah, are you at Harvard or Yale?” “Harvard.” “Where did you do your gap year?” “Jerusalem, how about you?” And so forth. Staring down at my snow-soaked suede boots, I pondered what must be the staggeringly small number of people in the world who can seriously have these conversations.

Even on dish-washing duty, I noticed a certain attitude as we took turns washing and drying and talked about our future plans. One student, identifying both himself and his girlfriend as writers, described their various ways of “narrativizing our lives together.” Give me a break, I thought with a silent eye roll as I silently placed newly dried cups into the cabinet. Even the intensity of these conversations intimidated me a little bit; I was continually surprised by both the intellectual depth of these conversations and the frequency with which serious subjects, ranging from marriage to the Arab-Israeli conflict, came up.

The most difficult part of the weekend was yet to come. After a dinner of make-your-own-kosher-vegetarian burritos, we convened in the great room for havdalah. From my previous experiences with havdalah in Israel, I remembered enjoying the beautiful, candlelit ceremony ending Shabbat. But as the music started, I once again felt incredibly frustrated by my ignorance regarding the prayers, songs, and motions that accompanied havdalah.

Shit, I muttered to myself as we gathered in a wide circle, arms around one another’s shoulders. The same songs that awoke a sense of nostalgia among my Shabbaton friends produced a reaction of dread in me comparable to, say, the Jaws theme music. As the swaying and singing began in the huge, dimly lit great room, I felt oddly exposed and began silently freaking out over my inability to fake my knowledge of the songs. It was ironic; after five semesters of Hebrew, I probably understood these songs’ meanings better than most of the students, but I didn’t know the tunes by rote. Repeating what I had done countless times before at Jewish religious events, I lowered my eyes demurely and vaguely moved my lips.

Then the ecstatic dancing began. My mind returned in that moment to a year long ago when I watched a friend’s shy dad at my school’s father-daughter dance. This father’s expression of pure terror at the prospect of dancing to silly songs in front of other people had been a mystery to me at the time—What’s the big deal? I had thought. At the Shabbaton, I finally understood how that father had felt. I didn’t know what I supposed to be doing, and that anxiety made me lose my interest in participating in the dancing at all. Very shortly, I retreated to an adjoining room where some similarly unenthusiastic students had already gathered. After talking with them for a while and, of course, engaging in another one of many platonic cuddling sessions that were so popular that weekend, I schlepped back to my cabin with mixed feelings about where exactly I was supposed to fit in the Jewish community.

By Sunday morning, the spell of the Shabbaton had broken and the sky had returned to gray. It was as if the sun had also attended the Shabbaton, and had decided to leave promptly at its end. After a mostly silent breakfast in the great room, interrupted only by the clank of spoons in cereal bowls, we said our goodbyes to the few students who had not already returned to their universities. With bemused expressions, my friend and I drove down the muddy gravel driveway, set the GPS for Charlottesville, and that was that.

But that wasn’t that. My relationship to Judaism was somehow permanently affected by that Shabbaton in the woods. Yes, at times I’d felt extremely uncomfortable, but I had really enjoyed the weekend of “processing” my emotions and learning more about Judaism with the quirky, kind group of young people I had met there. Having met these spiritually minded young people—even though I often felt like I didn’t quite fit in—I now feel much more comfortable with the idea of converting and learning more about Jewish spirituality. I’m ready for the next Shabbaton. I just hope there is a unit during the conversion process where I can learn all of those Hebrew children’s songs, so that next time, I can join in.

Anne Grant is a student at the University of Virginia.