My Judaism is, admittedly, rather heterodox.
My kashrut is relatively lax (no milk and meat, no forbidden animals, but I’ll eat at a place that serves non-kosher stuff), I only fasted for half a day for Tisha b’Av, I have really liberal ideas about “chosenness,” G-d and His presence and His nature, and the meaning of holidays and things in the Tanakh and such. I’m openly LGBT, and I take a passing interest in certain topics of Christian theology. I take buses and go on Facebook and eat at restaurants on Shabbat.
At the same time, I like to pray, I’m really involved in a minyan, I’m trying to read more of the Tanakh this summer, I think of a lot of things in theological terms, and I definitely believe in some sort of G-d. I try not to do schoolwork on Shabbat. It informs my life in many ways, and a lot of my social and cultural life back home revolves around Jewish things and the Jewish community.
So what happens when I go abroad? I’m working in Shenzhen for seven weeks before returning to Chicago at the start of the academic year. This is the first time I’m outside of the United States for a significant period of time since I started getting seriously interested in religion again (right after I came back from Shanghai).
It can be a bit challenging at times.
There is a Chabad here in Shenzhen, but they don’t always have services every day, and I’m sometimes going to be tied up on Shabbat. The nearest synagogue after that is over the border in Hong Kong.
So I practice alone. I’ve tried to recite Ma’ariv alone in my room at least once every few days. I went to synagogue in Singapore, and I did the half-day fast that Conservative Judaism does for Tisha B’Av. I avoid pork. I read a bit of Tanakh here and there. I want to read Proverbs this summer.
I’ve talked with people on Facebook, and my parents on Skype. Sometimes I talk about religion with my mom.
I’m enjoying my experience here, to be sure. But it’s also nice to be Jewish. I think what makes me most comfortable is if I have a contemplative space. Somewhere where I can “do religion.” For the rest of the day, I’m pretty normal (aside from checking if stuff has pork in it). But when I’m in that space, I’m different. I’ve sort of made that space on the window ledge of my room.
It’s also somewhat liberating. While I’m travelling, my Judaism is totally my own. I can think about it in my own way, read what I want, and enrich it with my experiences here. It’s self-contained, but it’s been informed by being abroad.
I’m really enjoying my trip, but I’m also looking forward to Fall Quarter, in Chicago. It’s nice to already be planning for Rosh HaShanah, and Yom Kippur, and things for the minyan (I’m events chair and food czar). At the same time, I can go out and have the most amazing eggplant ever here in Shenzhen, or go to a 600-year-old fortress (which will happen one weekend), or chat with my colleagues in Chinese (which happens a lot more).
If anything, this trip has taught (or re-taught) me one thing about faith: it is incredibly portable. Our faith is often tied into the communities in which we live, or into the places in which we practice. I admit, sometimes I imagine myself in the synagogue I grew up in in New York, or in the third-floor chapel at the Hillel at the University of Chicago. But you don’t need to be there, or with those people that you practice with, to feel faith. It’s anywhere.
And it doesn’t prevent you from having new experiences. It makes you have more of them. It adds a whole new dimension to the travel experience. And that’s kinda awesome.