I stood practically unable to move, the crowd packed so tight around me, reading the sign in front: “Chocolate-covered bacon! 2 for $4! Get yours!” Hmm… I thought to myself, “Can it get any more unkosher than that? … Probably not.” I immediately thought about Judaism and its many ritual laws. I come from a fairly observant family (my father is a Conservative pulpit rabbi), so I have been familiar with keeping kosher and keeping the Sabbath since a young age. I remember, when I was younger, how much it used to frustrate me. I didn’t understand why all my friends could go out and get together and do fun things on Saturdays, while I was stuck at home. Yes, I had been told that Shabbat was a way to rest and refresh yourself for the week, but wasn’t that what Sunday was for? It just didn’t make sense to me. Flash forward many moons later (to the Saturday morning described above), and as I stood there staring at that sign, I thought to myself, “Wow, Shabbat in Washington, D.C., truly is incredible.
Let’s rewind to earlier that morning. I woke up at 9 a.m. that Saturday ready to meet my friend (a fellow intern I met at the RAC’s “Meet S’more Interns” event) to go to synagogue. I arrived at services and discovered my friend was nowhere to be found. There were only older men and women there. Discouraged, I left services and headed back toward my dorm. However as I crossed the street, I noticed a women and her two daughters, all of whom were wearing skirts and sheitals (the traditional head covering Orthodox women wear). I made a rash decision and followed them. Already across the street, I probably looked like a crazy person running after them, sweating through my clothes, tripping over my heels, my face red, and gasping for breath. However, after a short chase, I finally caught up and asked them where they were heading. They told me they had just finished the early morning service at Kesher Israel, another minyan would be starting soon and I should definitely go. They told me the walk was not bad and gave me the cross streets. Little did I know, it was not the “short easy walk” they had described. The synagogue was all the way in Georgetown! After a panicked phone call to my friend back in New Jersey asking her to Google-map the synagogue, I was back on the path and somehow made it….just in time for Kiddush. (I later pretended it had been strategic timing on my part). The moment I walked into the sea of bustling Jews who had just finished services, I recognized a familiar face – a girl whom I had met for one minute last week at a different congregation. We immediately greeted each other warmly.
She was going to a congregant’s house for lunch, and she directed me to the hospitality coordinator so that I could do the same. Shyly, I approached him. He greeted me with a warm smile and open arms and immediately invited me to a potluck lunch that he and a few people were having at the park. I asked if my friend from Meet S’more Interns could come and he replied, “The more the merrier!” So there we were, 15 strangers ranging from the ages of 19 to 50, all sitting around a table to share a Shabbat meal. We began with an ice breaker, saying our names and our favorite childhood toys. The answers highlighted the generational differences between us. I quickly learned how interesting this motley Shabbat group was. It included a woman who had just moved to Washington, D.C., from Peru, a man from England who had just made aliyah to Israel, another man who taught me the ins and outs of the Chinese language, and so many more interesting characters. By the end of the lunch, I had 15 new friends.
As we were leaving, one of the younger attendees, a college student, mentioned that he was going square dancing at a church in Columbia Heights later that night, and he invited us to come. Square dancing? I thought to myself…what a bizarre Saturday night activity. (I immediately imagined the stereotypical cowboy/girl line dancing scene in which both dancers have a stock of wheat protruding from their mouths.) But then the more I thought about it, I realized, hey, who am I to say what is and isn’t normal? It sounds like a fun new experience so, why not? What have I got to lose?
With my plans for later that night solidified, I left my new friends and returned to my Machon Kaplan group. Immediately upon my arrival at the dorm, the elevator door opened and I found myself whisked off by three of my peers to a “meat festival” that was taking place a few blocks away. It was there that I found myself staring at the sign that said “”Chocolate-covered bacon! 2 for $4! Get yours!” It had already been quite a unique Shabbat afternoon–and was becoming more unique by the minute.
Hours later, after a beautiful Havdallah service with my fellow Machon Kaplan participants atop the Kennedy Center, I put on my boots and met my friend to go square-dancing. After some directional issues and many metro transfers later, we eventually made it there and walked in, not knowing what to expect. We were immediately greeted by our friend from lunch. He grabbed me saying “Be my partner!” and next thing you know, we were square dancing! I have to admit, it was the most fun I had had in ages! It was the sort of pure fun that I feel people rarely experience these days. It was just incredible: the feeling of being whisked across the dance floor, everyone introducing themselves to a random partner each time, and getting to learn about someone new. It is impossible to be swung around and Dosey-Doe with someone without breaking out into a wide grin, ear to ear.
Who would have thought the Shabbat day would end where it did: square-dancing with a stranger at some Episcopal church in downtown Columbia Heights on a Saturday night after having lunch with 15 strangers-turned-friends and spending an afternoon surrounded by signs advertising oh-so-unkosher chocolate-covered bacon? That is the joy of Washington DC, a city full of youth and adventure, and Jewish people, all caring for one another. This was a Shabbat I will forever treasure.
Mira Biller is a participant in the Machon Kaplan Summer Social Action Internship Program, interning at Jews United for Justice.