Becoming Observant in the Land of the Nittany Lions

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.

13 comments on “Becoming Observant in the Land of the Nittany Lions

  1. Shayna – thank you very much for your invitation – if we’re ever in that area I will let you know.

    Also – if anyone happens to come through this area, please do not hesitate to contact us. We’re just a few miles off of I-80.

  2. Sometimes I think it’s easier to define yourself when there’s you’re an enormous contrast from the status quo. I could easily explain to a 7-year-old why we don’t imitate the behavior at secular relative’s homes but it’s infinitely harder to explain why she can’t go barelegged in summer when other frum girls do! Ilanit–if you’d like to experience an opposite type of Shabbos, you’re welcome to be our guests in Monsey!

  3. I can relate to your post so much, since when we started this journey we were pretty much on our own and it was a very exciting time in our lives. We moved about five years ago to a frum community from very rural Lancaster (read: all neighbors were Amish). When we moved here we were very ready to get into a community for my children and for our sakes in order to grow in our observance. I have to tell you though I truly missed our home and country life for a very long time. I still miss it but I am close enough that if I need a ‘fix’ I can take the 1.5 hour drive to Lancaster and visit. Also I just try to live my country life here in the city. As much as I miss it, I know it was the right decision for us. I really love it here during the yomim tovim! I especially love sukkot and all the ‘sukkah hopping’ that gets done. We are a small commuity so it is pretty heimishe here. I wish you all the best and continued growth where ever you are!

  4. To Gershon –

    I wish I knew Yehudah and Orit Seif, but they are at UPenn, and we are at Penn State (about 3.5 hours west). Sorry!

  5. I assume you know Yehudah and Orit Seif?

    Rabbi Seif is my second cousin. We;ve never met, as I lived in Israel whenhe was growing up in NJ and then moved to Chicago. I hear he’s doing great outreach work out in your part of the world.

    Please tell them their long lost cousin says hello and wishes them well!

  6. First of all, thank you for your comments and I am really touched and inspired that people read my post! I have never blogged before so I am very excited.

    I should add that the primary reason that brought us here is that my husband was Director of Student Life for Penn State Hillel, which he has since left and is now a student like me. The involvement with Hillel filled our lives and made Judaism front and center. In addition, being in the role of a role model, educator, counselor, friend, and advisor really drove my husband (and by extension, me) to grow in our own knowledge. It was quite inspirational to see the students who would make the effort to shlep all the way to the spiritual center for Friday night services and dinner, regardless of their affiliation or knowledge of Judaism, and seeing this inspired me to really make Judaism my own. I would even argue that, because we don’t have a lot of people we can rely on, because we don’t have many community institutions, and because we don’t even have a lot of friends who fully understand Shabbat or keeping kosher (Jewish and non-Jewish – I suppose we are also doing kiruv!), we have to get creative and figure out how we make this work regardless of our circumstances.

    At this point in our lives, without children and without job responsibilities (the student life!), we can sort out what is important to us, how we want to raise our children (b”h), what kind of community and shul we want, so that we will be more prepared when we join a larger community.

    Thank you again for your posts!

  7. And Chabad shluchim are also willing to send their children away for school at a young age (I’ve seen 8) when the local day school isn’t on par with what they want for their children’s education.

    I wouldn’t recommend moving *into* such circumstances, but I would agree that living in them does give someone a very strong sense of self and direction.

  8. Chana – I was listening to Rebbetzin Heller’s tape on Community and she discussed the issue you mentioned.

    She brought down that Rabbi Aharon Kotler, when promoting the Community Kollel concept, invoked the principal that something that is giving forth does not absorb. Ie, if you are busy spreading Torah you won’t absorb the non-Torah influences.

    She also said that Chabad Shluchim and their children have avery strong sense of who they are so they are less likely to be effected by outside influences.

  9. Well, I’ve been deep inside the frum community for decades. Every time we go on a family trip and pass by farmland, I tell my wife, one day I’d love to live out here. Just give me a few good Jewish books, my guitar, open fields and good weather…. Perhaps we canstart a small community out here with families that are looking for cheap housing and space. At which point she responds, well I hope you enjoy the farm, because the day you do that, I’m outta here!

    While David Linn is right in saying that we are not islands (nor are we rocks…sorry S&G) there is much to be said for your privacy and going it almost alone. There is an intimacy with Hashem that develops, because nobody else is doing it around you and it’s for real. You can take baby steps and grow at your own pace when there aren’t expectations of kiruv professional all around. In many ways it’s a healthier way to go. And I write this even though I am a so-called kiruv professional. I still recall the powerful bond I forged with Hashem when I was the only one in my high school keeping Shabbos. I still remind Hashem of it on Rosh Hashana, in the hope that it will serve as my own little Akeidas Yitzchok.

    (On the other hand, there’s the possibility that this very situation can be the very cause of all that inspiration fizzling out. With little frum socializing and community support, it can get rough and lonely)

    Illanit is well aware that this is only a temporary phase. One day, they’ll be in a bigger town and chinuch and integration will happen.

    I would only suggest that you need to have direction even when you’re doing it this way. Otherwise you’ll find yourself fixing a lot of misconceptions both halachically and perhaps philosophically.

    Good luck on your journey, and if you pass by a farm just outside a big town, let me know about it. Perhaps my wife and I can work something out… ;-)

  10. I have often wondered this about families of Chabad Shalichim who plant themselves in a location where there are no frum Jews in order to do kiruv. It amazes me. What is their secret of being so unafraid of “reverse kiruv”, that is, of their children being negatively influenced by the majority? And yet, it appears the kids are not affected, in the Chabad families I have known.

  11. I envy the author of this post in some ways but I wonder what they will do for chinuch eventually. It is very hard for kids to grow up in a community as the only frum Jews.

  12. While I think it is tremendous that you and your husband were able to grow in a community with few observant jews, I can’t say that I agree with your advice to do so as a conscious decision.

    While growing in your yiddishkeit outside of a community will remove the external pressures to grow at a pace faster than what might be proper for you, a community brings many, many positive necessities.

    A community brings more learning and growth opportunities, a greater choice of rabbeim, teachers and friends, support, minyanim, etc. (Not to mention kosher Pizza!)

    IMO, true growth is possible outside of a community (you are living proof of that!), growth outside of a community is praiseworthy but, all things being equal, the choice to go to a place without a community may be fraught with difficulties. As it says in Pirkei Avos: Do not separate yourself from the community.

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