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Finding 'Community' on an Omani Beach

October 1, 2009 By:
Ethan M. Simon
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Ethan M. Simon

FIRST PERSON

While studying abroad in Oman, I met Kasia, a girl from Poland, whose experiences with the Jewish community of Northwestern University has inspired her to consider converting from Catholicism to Modern Orthodox Judaism.

When asked what made her feel this way, she did not discuss the Jewish approach to worshipping God, but instead spoke of an appreciation of Jewish values, and demonstrated an eagerness to learn more, since she's already begun studying Hebrew and Torah.

Not that it was any of my business, but I wasn't sure, at first, whether she'd expressed a good enough reason to make such a drastic change in her life. However, a remarkable experience in Oman showed me just how precise her reasoning was.

On the day before Rosh Hashanah, Kasia reminded me that the holiday was coming soon. Being in Oman and having celebrated Ramadan for the past month, I was far removed from thoughts of the High Holidays. However, her enthusiasm for Judaism and desire to honor the Jewish New Year reminded me of what I love most about my religion: No matter where I am -- be it 50 miles from home or 5,000 -- the community has ensured that I'm not alone for a holiday.

While in Prague last year, a Shabbat dinner was waiting for me, and I was invited to pray in an 800-year-old synagogue. For Purim and Chanukah, my hometown synagogue -- Tiferet Beth Israel in Blue Bell -- sends care packages to me at Muhlenberg every year. During all other holidays, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, local shuls are more than happy to welcome the students at my college to pray.

Being in Oman, it is impossible for the Jewish community to reach out. There are no synagogues here now, and although some Jews may reside in Oman, they are few in number and have no official place to gather. Nevertheless, when Kasia stated her interest in celebrating Rosh Hashanah and showed me her small collection of apples, I came up with an idea.

This year, I could carry on the tradition and be the one to embrace another. Since Kasia was not yet fully aware of the meaning and traditions associated with the New Year, I decided to go with her to the local shuk to buy some traditional foods.

We easily found the honey to go with the apples, but a round challah is not exactly an Omani specialty. But when have Jews ever been stopped by circumstance? Whether imprisoned during the Holocaust or enslaved in Egypt, Jews have always seemed to maintain their traditions, even if they must make sacrifices.

So we used a round, deep-fried Indian sweetbread as a substitute. We bought some mango and guava juice. Then, Kasia and I sat on one of Oman's beautiful beaches, looking out toward the Arabian Sea. I said a few prayers over the food, we ate, and she wished me a shanah tovah.

I have no doubt that this holiday will be one of the most memorable of my life. Even though I am at a rebellious stage, during which I question Judaism and have gone as far away from the physical community as I possibly can, being one of the only Jews within hundreds of miles has allowed me to rediscover my relationship to the religion.

I must agree with Kasia, and proclaim my appreciation for one of the great Jewish values -- community. To answer my initial inquiry as to whether or not Kasia has a good enough reason to accept Judaism, the answer is, unmistakably, "yes."

Ethan M. Simon of North Wales is a junior at Muhlenberg College, majoring in philosophy, and now studying in Oman and Jordan.

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