Um, Actually, I’m Jewish

Leah Mesh-Ferguson - Ecuador


April 7, 2014

I guess you could say it’s been interesting. I am a Jew living in a 95% Catholic country. The first time I dealt with this head-on was with my host family in Quito. I was sort of dreading the conversation, what with my very limited Spanish at the time. Finally, the question came one night when we were sitting in the living room.

“Eres Catolica?”

“No, soy Judia.”

They took a second to process that. My host father looked disappointed. Then came my sister’s question:

“Pero, crees en Jesus Christ, no?”

In a panic, I replied that yes, we do believe in Jesus. Now, that’s an interesting thing that came out of my mouth. I call myself a very reform Jew. I had a bat-mitzvah and attend a reform temple in Winchester, Massachusetts. However, I don’t believe in God.

In the past, this has gotten me some weird looks and the comment, “Then you can’t be Jewish.” I always insist that I can indeed be Jewish even if I don’t believe that there’s a higher power. For me, Temple Shir Tikvah has always been a wonderful community. I was part of the Youth Group for five years. I had my bat-mitzvah in its sanctuary with Rabbi Rim and our cantor, Beth. I occasionally attend Friday night services, and I’m always so happy when I do. I attended Hebrew school on Wednesdays when my schedule allowed it. Through Shir Tikvah, I gained the opportunity to go on a service trip to Ukraine. I am part of the Jewish community, I identify myself as Jewish, and that, without a doubt, makes me Jewish.

My experiences here in Ecuador have reinforced my belief that being religious, for many people, is being part of a community. I attended Christmas Mass with my host family, which made me miss services back home. Jesus is portrayed in many ways all over my house. They know I’m Jewish, although I had to explain what that means when I first told them. They’ve been very accepting of it.

Many of the conversations I’ve had through Global Citizen Year about volunteers have made me revisit my trip to Ukraine and what it meant. After all, that was my first taste of independent travel, which definitely contributed to my desire to join Global Citizen Year. My trip to Ukraine was organized by a Jewish organization called Prozdor, and the program was called Havayah, meaning God’s essence. We spent time in Dnepropetrovsk at a Jewish day school leading a vacation day camp, with activities in art, song, dance, and leadership training. What drove me to join this trip was the opportunity to travel and experience a country very different from my own, very similar to the reasons that I chose to do Global Citizen Year.

I have been very disconnected from my Jewish identity this year. Before leaving Massachusetts, I removed my Star of David necklace for fear of losing it. The only time I recognized and celebrated a holiday was when I lit candles for Hanukah with other Jewish Fellows at our Thanksgiving celebration (which coincided with the Jewish holiday). I have not talked very much about my religion with my family. Occasionally, I will think about my community back home or be jealous of my mother who is going to Friday night services, but it is a part of me that has been moved to a back burner for the year. Despite all of this, I am happier than ever to be a part of my Jewish community back home and to have found a community within the cohort of Fellows.  And even though it doesn’t come out much here, it is a huge part of who I am.

Leah Mesh-Ferguson