As someone who went to Catholic school K-8 grades, I’ve only ever been to one bat mitzvah in my time (and it was for my high school friend who went rogue and had hers at 15). So walking into the Shabbat service halfway through felt a little like stepping foot in a different country. I luckily found my friend Avivah, who greeted me with a warm smile and patted down on the open chair next to her. Rachel, one of the student JRC leaders, had to get up and hand me a prayer book because, like an amateur, I didn’t know that I was supposed to have one (let alone that it is a crucial part of the service..unless of course you know everything by heart, which was everyone, in which case the book is just for decoration). The pages flipped backwards and almost all of it was in Hebrew, a language so intriguing and ear-filling that I couldn’t actually process the English translation. But that didn’t stop me from burying my face in the book, flipping to all the right pages, and straining my few remaining brain cells that somehow survived the shock of the first week back to act like I was following along. No way was I going to be the sore thumb in the 20 person group who didn’t sing and who also stared at everyone while they sung. After botching up the knee bow and some more singing (which I was informed is actually “chanting”), the service ended and we filed into the brightly lit room where roughly 40-50 other people cheerfully awaited Shabbat dinner. I wanted to go to the service because 1) I was curious and wanted to experience it but 2) because I didn’t want to be that one moocher who comes just for the warm meal…little did I know.
After a welcome and another prayer, everyone took seats at beautifully set tables with family-style dishes. Although we didn’t get any special priority for attending the service and had to wait to be seated at an overflow table with paper plates, I wasn’t complaining: there was plenty of food (two cauldron-sized pots proudly bubbled on their own little table) and all of it smelled of spice…something I didn’t realize how much I missed until I swallowed boatfuls of curry at once and cried pathetic tears, mourning my lost tolerance from too much Mission dining. Someone announced that there was a green curry made especially for those people allergic to coconut. That’s an allergy? Talk about considerate. Everyone chatted about common Williams experiences and things that made them them because we were all pretty much strangers. It brought me back to First Days and how anyone just sat with anyone at meals and how always wowed I was by the high IQs and EQs of practically all the people I was meeting. I felt so lucky to be one of the 2000. Putting away my plate and looking around the room, that’s how I felt at Shabbat and how I imagine most people feel if not each time, at least their first time: grateful for being so well taken care of for very little reason at all, besides that they showed up. And even if I don’t “buy” the religion (as I don’t as much with my Catholic faith either anymore), I so value and appreciate most religion’s skill at bringing people together and making them feel accepted and at peace. I guess they’ve had a lot of years of practice; it pays off.