Thirteen years of Jewish Day school made faith a big part of my everyday life; yet, its influence was often confined to and contained in the walls of the classroom. It spanned from 45 minutes of prayer everyday to the exploration of biblical texts in Judaic studies classes to holiday celebrations. My experience in New Orleans thus far has given a new meaning to my understanding of faith and the role that it has the potential to play in our world. I have not gone a single day here without a reminder of the immense power of believing in something.
During my first few days surrounded by an abundance of jambalaya, po’boys, and even alligator sausages, I was faced with the challenge of navigating this city, known for its incredible food, as a kosher Jew who could not eat much of its traditional cuisine. Upon doing some research and spending my first few days feasting on grilled cheese po’boys and beignets, I made my first visit to the Kosher Cajun Deli, the closest kosher butcher. Walking into this hidden gem tucked away in a suburb of New Orleans, I was immediately reminded of home. This practice of faith in a new city, which, quite frankly, is often inconvenient, keeps me grounded in who I am and where I come from.
Venturing out into New Orleans communities through my work with the American Red Cross, faith is all around me. At our very first home visit to install a smoke alarm in someone’s home, the man who welcomed us into his home began to tell us about himself and his life. He explained how his faith in God has kept him sober for the past 6 years. His ability to latch onto something and stay true to it quite literally saved him from a life of addiction.
This was only the beginning. As we continued making phone calls and installing smoke alarms, reminders of the prevalence of faith in this city appeared over and over again. They ranged from biblical quotes framed on the walls of living rooms to the “have a blessed day” message splayed across the McDonald’s billboard we passed driving into communities.
The city’s value of faith began to rub off on me, and I found myself attending Friday night services at a local synagogue each week, something I rarely do at home. In fact, this has become something I look forward to. I cherish the time to myself to reflect on the week that has passed, acknowledge what I am grateful for, and look ahead to the week to come. As the congregation chants the Hebrew prayers I grew up chanting in school, I also treasure the chance to feel like I am part of something larger than myself.
Last week, I decided to go to church with one of my friends. Though the prayers were different and the rituals were unfamiliar to me, I felt that same sense of appreciation for this time that I had felt at synagogue: time to bask in the presence of a loving community, express gratitude, and think about how we can work toward becoming our best selves.
I’ve often questioned what the world would be like without religion, as it frequently seems like it lies at the root of so much conflict and discord. However, my time in New Orleans, a city of resilient people that have remained hopeful through the roughest of storms and hardships, has proven the contrary. Though they often go hand in hand, religion and faith are not mutually exclusive. Without something to believe in, whether that is a god, family, friends or ourselves, it is difficult to fathom how we would keep persevering in this tumultuous world.