Every other Sunday in Kensington, Maryland, there was a soccer tournament in the park down the street after church. In classic old town America-style, families would come and lay their picnic blankets on the grass and cheer their kids on against the rival team from nearby Bethesda or Chevy Chase. I was eight years old at the time, a long wiry kid who was often tripping over her own two feet, and the only Jew on the team.
I was also the only one on the team who didn’t go to church. As I rolled my ball back and forth between my soccer cleats on a clear spring day, I listened to the kids talk about their church lessons from earlier that morning, and I realized I was jealous of them, jealous of the roots they had. My family was Jewish, but there was nothing we really did that made us Jewish. No holidays, no prayers, no communal gatherings. We simply didn’t practice anything or belong anywhere, and it was starting to get under my skin.
My best friend in Kensington was a spunky Mormon girl who lived five doors down from my house. Her name was Fiona. Fiona’s family, eight kids total, was originally from Salt Lake City, Utah and every night when they sat down to dinner and said grace. I also said grace, not really knowing who I was saying grace to, but I was at their dinner table and wanted to be polite.
On the wall in Fiona’s living room, smack past the main entrance, was a large painting of Jesus with a thick reddish-brown beard, flowing hair, and large benevolent green eyes.
“Jesus looks like my dad,” I told Fiona.
I wasn’t trying to be funny. I swear Jesus looked just like my dad during his hippie days in college, when his hair was flowing and he wore a loose white cotton shirt with the top part of his chest exposed, painting landscapes on canvases in Central Park before he headed to medical school.
“That makes sense that your dad looks like Jesus,” Fiona responded, matter of fact, “since Jesus was a Jew.”
My jaw dropped. “You’re kidding me!”
“Don’t you know where Jews come from? They’re a special people, from ancient times.”
“Really?” I bit my lip, slightly embarrassed. The truth was that aside from some vague story about the splitting of a sea I didn’t know anything about the origins of the Jews and what we were supposed to believe in.
“Haven’t you heard of Israel? That’s your country.”
“Oh no,” I corrected her. “Jews are from New York. It’s a city.”
Fiona shook her head. “Here, let me show you something.”
She disappeared into the kitchen and then returned with the New Testament, placing it in my hands. She said I should bring home this bible and share the truth about Jesus with my family, so that we could learn about our roots. She also told me that if I came to her church—the one next to the big white and gold Mormon temple down the street, a temple so tall that you could see it from the highway rising up like a castle from Disneyland—that I would find all the answers to my questions there. She also mentioned that there were free donuts at the church.
Maybe it would have behooved me to bring up the seeking of God and the origins of our people first, but when I approached my dad, mowing the lawn in our front yard, the first thing I blurted out was the whole thing about the free donuts at the church. He stopped the lawn mower and stared at me with his big benevolent Jesus eyes. Glowing, I handed him the bible, announcing my holy intention to go to church with Fiona’s family that Sunday, learn about where the Jews had come from, and eat donuts.
My father’s knuckles gripped the New Testament so hard that he nearly snapped the book in half, staring at my face while I spoke. “You’re not going to church,” he said.
“Why not? There are donuts—”
“Because you’re a Jew. Jews don’t go to church.”
“So, where do we go?”
He handed the bible back to me. “You just don’t belong in a church, you understand? Now, go return this bible to your friend’s family.”
I didn’t understand, but I also didn’t fight back too hard. I didn’t go to church after all, but when spring rolled around again and my friends were painting hollowed eggshells with watercolors for Easter, my parents took me and my brother to our first Pesach Seder in a nearby orthodox Jewish community in Potomac. For the first time in my life, I learned about my roots, from my own people. I heard for the first time the epic story about how the Jews forged their own identity and became a nation, a religion, and a community that left Egypt and set its roots down in Israel. It was on that night learning about the exodus of my ancestors that I experienced my own sort of exodus—a salvation, a revealed knowledge of where I had come from that would ultimately inform my future.
Less than a year after that Pesach night, my family moved to Potomac where we joined the Jewish community and I attended Jewish school. Seven years after that first Pesach night, I decided to take the ultimate plunge a Jew could take and go live in Israel. At the end of high school, I applied for Israeli citizenship, studied at an Israeli university, and even served in the IDF. For years to come, I celebrated Pesach Seder in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Tiberias, reliving the story of our people along with my own people, sharing rituals in each other’s homes as an extended family. And I can thank Fiona for that, because she was the one who first forced me to go find my roots.
As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said, our religious traditions are a powerful moral resource. At a fundamental level, communities—no matter the religion—are built on a shared moral vision that provides an enclosed structure so that we can live freely in a way that honors the freedom of all. It informs our relationships with others, with ourselves, and with a higher source of power. I intuitively knew this as a kid, that I needed this structure and sense of belonging, even if I didn’t know how to articulate it yet. As Rabbi Sacks put it, communities are where the moral enterprise begins, and I’m glad that I was given the opportunity to take those first steps.
Jessica Lauren Walton is a communications strategist and video producer in the U.S. defense community. You can learn more about her forthcoming memoir detailing her adventures as an American in the Israeli security community here.