Last summer I went to Hong Kong for three months – for me that’s home. Although I was born in Belgium and lived in Lexington, Massachusetts while in high school, Hong Kong is my home base. Now Hong Kong may seem exotic to you, but when it comes to observing kashrut and keeping Shabbat after a climb to the 45th floor, it becomes more difficult than exotic. My parents live there for business, along with my married sister and British brother-in-law. (We accepted him into the family because he made us seem more international.)
I was raised in a very traditional and cultural Jewish home in Asia. My parents were proud Israelis who made sure that we always had a connection to the Land of Israel and to being Jews no matter where we lived. While others may have had their Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall, we merged these two cultures with our Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the Great Wall of China. My twin brother Orrel and me had our first exposure to Torah observant Judaism at Lexington High School, where the OU’s Jewish Student Union offered free pizza on Monday afternoons. (Jewish Student Union is a program that enhances Jewish culture at public high schools.)
Initially, Orrel and I were attending for two slices of pizza a week; but eventually, we became interested and started attending NCSY Shabbatons in our senior year. As a result, we spent a year learning in Eretz Yisrael. We now attend Yeshiva University; Orrel is at Yeshiva College and I am at Stern College. As upcoming seniors, we cannot wait for another amazing year!
Since we became shomer Shabbat, we had not been home to Hong Kong for more than a few days at a time and during those occasions, I always had my brother with me for support. This all changed in the summer of 2012 when I had to be in Hong Kong for personal reasons, while my brother was in Israel learning in yeshiva and doing medical research. I felt that I was being left to fend for myself in Hong Kong.
On one hand, I was really excited to be with my family, but on the other hand I was scared. I was scared because since I became religious I had been immersed in Jewish communities – at seminary in Israel then in Stern College. In addition, I had a strong support comprised of New England NCSY rabbis and my seminary Aim Bayit to answer my questions and to further my growth as a Torah observant Jew. When acquaintances from high school were placing bets on how long I would stay “religious” after NCSY, my support group was instrumental in keeping me on the “derech.”
In Hong Kong, I was entering three months in which my only social chevra would be myself. My connection to my Judaism would be up to me, and I feared I would lose everything that I had worked so hard to build in the past two years. This was not a dramatic exaggeration but a heartfelt declaration.
Within the first weeks, I felt myself losing my desire to daven and to learn Torah. Recorded shiurim that used to excite me seemed no longer applicable to the struggles I was facing. I remember calling a friend from Stern College and telling her, “There is no way I am coming out religious after this summer.” But through phone calls of guidance from my support groups in America and in Israel, I slowly learned that the key to surviving the summer would not be the growth I had planned for myself; I had to modify my plans.
Initially, I had strongly believed that just as my twin brother was growing every day in Israel, I had to be growing and firming my roots as an Orthodox Jew. Instead, I had to learn to tread water in order not to drown. I couldn’t simply focus on listening to shiurim; instead my focus had to be just making it day-by-day. For example, I would try and have one meaningful davening – Shacharit or Minchah – in Hong Kong. I couldn’t hold myself to the high religious standards that I had set for myself at Stern.