I’m writing this travel blog post after having done some traveling of my own this past weekend; having gone on a jaunt around Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The tour of the Kingdom spoke to something within me that had been longing to see that face of New England. The experience showed me the side of Vermont a UVM student trapped in the Burlington bubble isn’t exposed to. Not only did the Kingdom have much to say about defining Vermont to me, but it also spoke viscerally to me with exciting and exalted ways of living. I could get glimpses at what had inspired writers such as Robert Frost and Howard Frank Mosher. While I’m not about to write your typical online travel blog, I’m about to talk in depth about travel because I believe traveling can be an incredibly powerful experience for personal growth and understanding. While you learn about the world, the world teaches you about yourself. There is an art to traveling which has the potential for creating life changing experiences and lasting transformations for anyone. It’s been said that traveling gives people new eyes to see the world as the unfamiliar sights are those which challenge us to change our paradigms. These new eyes aren’t just about how we see the world looking outwards, but also about how we see ourselves looking inwards. Traveling that challenges you is traveling that will change you. Everyone has their own unique comfort zone and personal boundary to cross for getting out of their everyday bubble and for growth. For some, traveling to the next state over may be pushing that boundary, while others may only find it in the most distant of lands. Wherever it is, taking the first step to leaving home will undoubtedly teach one about their self. The new eyes we engender as we see new lands allow us to learn about ourselves and give us self-awareness unable to be accessed before. It’s not until we can leave the familiar setting of our lives, the ruts we may trace each day over and over, that we can look back and see things from new perspective. We can ask ourselves why we were in those ruts in the first place or see that we can choose to step out of them too. Of course, there are different styles of traveling to take, but adopting new eyes really comes down to embarking on a journey that challenges you rather than traveling for relaxation and leisure. Traveling that challenges us deep down can be a lot of fun, but it’s definitely not easy. This type of traveling is the experience that forces us to ask the hard questions which changes us, and it’s often found away from the mainstream tourist attractions, guided tours, crowds, and resort hotels. One way to travel like this is to travel alone. When we find ourselves in a new land alone, we have no one to rely on but ourselves. We are forced to be resourceful when challenges arise, often having to interact with different people for help and companionship, meeting people who we never would have met had we been within a familiar group or familiar setting. Spontaneity arises as opportunities come our way which we have to make a decision in the moment without anyone to go to or consult, and often times there is no time to delay for thought. What we encounter while traveling forces us to be in the present moment and aware of our environment, as we begin noticing all the little details which we’d normally filter out at home amidst the familiar. This heightened awareness of our surroundings can lead to more awareness within ourselves. As one will reflect on theselves and how they’re changing, new questions to ask are revealed.
I had mentioned before that there are many different types of travel that we’ll take in our lives. When we think of travel, we often think of taking a holiday to an exotic country or roaming the streets of an iconic city. Yet, we are all travelers too through the cultures of religion and within Judaism. A life of Judaism is a life of pilgrimage, and our texts are full of metaphors and stories of those who were pilgrims in their lives before us. Those who wandered for some time in the desert returned to society a changed person. Each of my travels around the world, near and far, had many lessons to teach me about myself. I would take on new eyes with each new place I’d go and be able to look back at my past ordinary life with new perspectives. I’ve experienced the same effect with my travels within Judaism. I was raised in a reconstructionist synagogue. Aspects about that setting I thought were normal – a female (and homosexual) Rabbi, the dancing and singing, coed services, focus on nature and the environment, and more – I found out later weren’t as universal as I had assumed through experiencing more forms of Judaism. Exposure to conservative, reform, orthodox, Sephardic and more types and flavors of Judaism allowed me to see beyond the Ashkenazi and reconstructionist upbringing that I experienced and reflect upon it and who I am because of it. My journey or pilgrimage within Judaism has brought me to various destinations both in space and in concepts. When I was living in Jerusalem during the summer of 2018, both my roommates were orthodox and one of them was Sephardic. This was the first time I had been exposed to orthodox Judaism in my whole life. Previously, when encountering orthodox Jews I would feel perplexed, dubious, and even a bit frightened by them. I couldn’t understand why they would always wear their kippa, dress a certain way, or have their payot hanging over their ears. None of it made sense to me because it challenged the singular upbringing I experienced and what my definition of what Judaism was. Yet, through my travels in Jerusalem where I could experience a Sephardic and orthodox Shabbat, ask questions about orthodox Judaism, and see firsthand how the many orthodox communities of Jerusalem lived and practiced Judaism, new insights were opened up to me about how and why I had formed the schema I had. Although I felt connected to them through some common experiences and knowledge, the religion they were practicing was quite different from what I had been raised to practice. Not only were their practices different, but their beliefs differed as well. Opinions on anything from dating, morals, and more were all put onto the table that summer in our lengthy conversations. Nothing was sacred when discussing religion, and no topic was spared.
What had happened that summer wasn’t just traveling in physical space to Jerusalem, but I was traveling through Judaism as well. When questioning the orthodox Judaism my roommates and many citizens of Jerusalem practiced, I was also questioning myself and my own upbringing. There were aspects of their Judaism I admired; no electronics or technology on Shabbat, the gathering of friends and family for Shabbat dinners, and their connection to something much larger than themselves. I also was able to reflect on the reconstructionist Judaism I was raised in and find parts which I liked too; not being restricted with a kosher diet, not having to wear a kippa or specific dress, and a foundation of both religion, justice, and the environment. What was important about the experience was the questions I was asking then, because I could only ask them from having an experience that challenged my previous paradigms and way of being.
When I returned to UVM in the fall after that summer in Jerusalem, I started to engage with the Chabad house on campus to learn from more perspectives on Judaism. This too had challenged me immensely and again I had a plethora of questions roaming my mind about their sect of Judaism. This stage of my Jewish pilgrimage was incredibly frustrating at times when I wasn’t sure if I liked what I was learning, or I saw flaws in my own upbringing. But these periods of confusion and questioning were important for me to develop my own Jewish identity and opinions. These times of chaos allowed me to reorganize my thoughts at a higher level, allowing me to let go of vestiges from the past and outdated concepts. With these new experiences came new eyes to see the world and myself from. The ignorant opinions occupying my mind about orthodox Judaism were soon diffused with insights and understanding about their practice and lives. I’ve come to find that I’m grateful for my reconstructionist childhood, but I also see lots of value in the other Jewish sects as well. As Mark Twain once said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime”. Traveling around the world and throughout Judaism opened my mind to new forms of living and allowed me to look back and see my life from a new view. Both in my secular and religious life, the new eyes I adopted while traveling gave me the perspective to develop my own identity and make my own decisions from what I felt was right and wrong.
I feel that this is part of what the mission of JCVT is to achieve here in Vermont. Recognizing that each of us is on our own journey through life, a one connected Jewish Vermont brings people together from vastly different places and backgrounds to exchange ideas and perspectives. This is a whole new take on the phrase “and eye for an eye”, because this exchange doesn’t make us blind and ignorant but rather opens our eyes with new ways of looking at the world. Each member of our small but vibrant Jewish community in Vermont brings with them a unique history of their own journey, perspectives and visions that only they can speak from. This diversity is what makes the Jewish communities of Vermont strong, because we still have so much to learn from one another.
The JCVT summit is this weekend at the Killington Hotel. We hope you can make the journey to learn from a variety of new perspectives from around the state and the world, coming together to exchange visions and eyes. This liminal experience, away from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, is a journey into the soul of Judaism in Vermont. All great journeys begin with a single step, and this journey is no different. Whether you travel to the end of the world or to the summit in Killington, you’ll come home a changed person and better for it. In the end, we may return with souvenirs and photos, but what really drives us to venture into the unknown is the knowledge of self that we gain from our travels.