In Jerusalem, it’s very easy to start conversations about religion and faith. As a Jewish studies major and a person whose identity is shaped by her faith, I was thrilled and invigorated by this. Soon I found myself having the same conversation over and over again:
You’re not Jewish? But if you’re not Jewish, why are you a Jewish studies major?
It turns out that sometimes it’s hard to explain why you’re interested in something. It is especially hard when it’s so deeply rooted in your personal faith. These conversations have forced me to reevaluate my purpose here and my narrative about myself over and over again. The religiously charged situations in which I often find myself here in Israel only amplified that. There are the conversations with rabbis and the conversations with tourists; the trips to sites deeply meaningful to Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or all three; the religious and political divides constantly apparent between my world in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from the thriving street life of Ben Yehuda street. All of these, too, have made me look more closely at what I believe and how it fits into the tides of world history.
In these moments, I have to ask myself: Who am I?
And I tell my story again: I am a Christian majoring in Jewish studies. I believe that if we look at Jesus rightly in his Jewish context, the tides of anti-Semitism throughout church history will be turned; and Christianity will begin to make a lot more sense.
But I find these questions most poignant at the Christian tourist sites. These sites are mostly churches built over particular rocks or sites at which tradition claims some great miracle happened. Sometimes I am awed by the beauty of these churches. But most of the time I feel unsettled in them, as if I have been dislodged from the flow of Christian history. I know this should be my history, and yet I am so uncomfortable with how Christians have behaved throughout history. I look at the towering buildings and see power structures and traditions that have often bound and oppressed people rather than set them free; especially Jewish people.
Much of Christianity here is either history and tradition, or tourists who only stay for ten days at a time. To me, this felt distant and impersonal, which was completely at odds with my experience of Christianity; my experience of God has been one that is personal and close. I believe he speaks to me and is intimately involved in my life every day; that he still works miracles in our world today and I believe I have seen them.
I didn’t see many Christian communities in Jerusalem like this. So, I not only felt like an outsider to the dominant culture and language, but to a religious community that was supposed to be my own. At moments I questioned the things I believed because they felt so far from my daily reality.
Things that helped
Three things helped me most. First, I turned to God and talked with him honestly about what I was struggling to understand. Second, I reached out to my community and close friends back home, and participated in my church’s service online. When I shared the discouragement I was feeling, I was amazed by the amount of support I received. The constancy of that community reminded me of who I am and strengthened my faith, even though I felt displaced in a new context.
Third, even though it was difficult, I kept pursuing community in Jerusalem. I continued to try different church services and to attend the student Bible study, although I found it difficult to connect and make friends at first. In hindsight, I think this is because I was so focused on having “experiences” and visiting new places that I wasn’t willing to just stay in and spend time with people.
Reaching out to people
Then one evening over Passover vacation, I invited a few friends from the Bible study to come over and play cards. We were all of differing religious backgrounds. The night went so well that we didn’t end up only playing cards. We also ended up eating out, watching a movie together, and staying up late talking and laughing. This has become common in our free time, and has given me a community where I feel at home both going out to have new experiences and staying in to cook dinner together. More than that, I had found people who I could be honest with; to talk about how my faith shapes me without holding back for fear of being disliked. I was also able to talk about how it has been a struggle for me here.
If you’re struggling with your faith abroad, know that it’s okay to reach out to people back home and be honest about how you’re feeling. Be bold and go out of your comfort zone into other religious contexts. Just make sure to find the support and community you need for yourself and your faith. Be honest about the challenges you face with your community and God. Sometimes it’s as simple as inviting people over to play card games.
Tori Paquette is a Psychology Major at Colby College and studied abroad with IFSA at the Rothberg International School in Jerusalem, Israel in Spring 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.