Judaism and Bolivia
Alumnus of Milken Tiferet session, 2015
A couple weeks ago, I was reminded of something my teacher at AMHSI, Reuven Spero, once said: “you can’t experience a culture by going somewhere and staying in a fancy hotel for a week or two. If you really want to get to know a culture, live with a host family for a year. Do what they do, eat the local food, speak the local language, etc.”
I’m currently living in Bolivia, seven months into a nine-month gap-year program through Princeton University, doing just that. I’m living in a small town called Tiquipaya, just outside the bigger city of Cochabamba, which houses one of the few Bolivian synagogues. About a month ago, I discovered and attended this synagogue for a Shabbat service. There were maybe 15-20 people in the entire building, and the Challah was a simple loaf of bread (I don’t imagine there are any Jewish bakeries nearby); yet, hearing the familiar prayers spoken, feeling the chutzpah which embodied the Jews around me, sharing in a mutual understanding of who we are and what we are trying to do – it somehow felt like a piece of home.
My Judaism has truly come to light during my time in Bolivia. Back in Los Angeles, I didn’t realize how much I took for granted constantly having Jews around me. I never truly understood how fundamental a part of my identity Judaism is. Empathetic and wonderful as they are, most around me cannot understand. It’s isolating to feel like nobody around you feels what it is to be without the people/history that you’re connected to, something so incredibly intrinsic to who you are. The absence of Judaism in my daily life was uniquely and emotionally taxing. That’s why I was so ecstatic to be meeting fellow Jews that Friday night; restoring (even a little bit) that piece of my identity helped me to feel whole again.
Following this minor revelation (about a month ago), I emailed Reuven to ask for advice. As absolutely wonderful as the synagogue was, it couldn’t provide me with many of the Jewish services I was looking for, and it was tiny. I suppose you can’t expect much more from a country with about 3 Jews in it, but still. It made me realize that I didn’t want to be dependent on a Jewish environment to feel whole; I wanted to know how to truly embody my Judaism. I wanted to become more religious. He replied with a huge list of books and his classic, witty humor, and we’ve been in correspondence since.
That identity – the core part of me that I have just begun to nurture – began at AMHSI. I’d been in Jewish school since kindergarten, but AMHSI broadened, enhanced, and contextualized that life experience. Reuven and that trip made me fall in love with Israel and my people, and made me begin to understand what it is to be a Jew. It sparked a journey which led to my Judaism being a piece of myself I wear with confidence and with pride, a journey I am still on. Judaism truly is a gift that AMHSI has given (and now continues to give) me. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me.