If I were to give one piece of advice to a couple engaged in the process of becoming more observant, I suggest this: move to a remote, slightly rural location with few Jews and an even fewer observant Jewish community. It has become apparent to me, since this is what my husband and I did, that not being in a Jewish community has had a direct correlation to our thought process and decision-making regarding our observance. We live in State College, PA – home to Penn State University and the Nittany Lions, and located within 3.5 hours of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Nittany Valley is home to football-crazed fans, about 40,000 undergraduate students, and more pizza shops than one can count. It is also our home since we got married 2.5 years ago, and remarkably, I can’t think of a better place to become more observant in Judaism.
Yesterday, after lunching with our Chabad friends, and it being a glorious, unseasonably warm day, we decided to spend the afternoon walking around in downtown State College. For whatever reason, perhaps it was the warmth or the fact that a game was going on, there were many more people walking around than usual. About 20 minutes into our walk, I noticed something. Everywhere we went, people watched us. And I watched them watching us. And I noticed that their eyes were fixed on one thing – the blue knitted kippah on my husband’s head. I pointed this out to my husband. He didn’t believe it, then asked if I thought he should take it off. I shook my head. We kept walking. Internally, I marveled at my husband and myself.
Not living within a Jewish community has given us the freedom to grow in our observance at our own pace. When we moved here, not only did we have the challenge of building a foundation for our marriage (and getting used to each other’s hot buttons), but we also had the challenge of developing the kind of Jewish home that we wanted. Away from Jewish communal life, a Jewish newspaper, Judaica shops, and the other accoutrements that come with a Jewish community, we have identified the features of Jewish life that are important to us, that we will look for when we move on from here. We delight in the seemingly little things, like the surprising variety of kosher wines in our local liquor store, the weekly selection of fresh kosher meat (itself a year-old development) in the grocery store, and perhaps most frequently, the questions from our non-Jewish friends and classmates, for many of whom we are the first Jews they have met. We absolutely love Shabbat and savor its uniqueness as our little island of peace. Not only do I get to perfect my challah baking (courtesy of no classes on Fridays), but we also try to have people over every Friday night specifically to celebrate with others.
Perhaps the best part about living here is that, even though my husband and I do not come from religious backgrounds, we have the confidence that when we enter a Jewish community we will be comfortable in what we do, what we know, and what we don’t know. There are millions of advantages of becoming more observant within a community, and frequently we long for one. But to be honest, I am going to miss my little home (read: apartment) when we move to a big city, where my home is one among many with a mezuzah; here it is the only one in the entire apartment building. I am going to miss the uniqueness I feel, knowing that one grocery store began carrying kosher challah because my husband called the challah distributor without the grocery store knowing about it (during a period of less-than-tasty challah at home). I can’t wait to join the larger Jewish community, but at the same time, I will miss the time and space I have here to define Judaism for myself, on my own and together with my husband.