Posted Joseph Shamash, student at Masa Israel’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
Born to immigrant parents from Iran, I spent my early childhood in Dallas before my family decided to relocate to Los Angeles. As a student at Hillel Academy, an Orthodox day school, Judaism was a central part of my life, though meticulous religious observance was not. I did not like feeling forced into observing the minute details of halacha – especially when it made no sense to me. As a child, I asked a rabbi whether it was better to drive to shul or stay home on Yom Kippur, and I was deeply troubled when he told me it was better to stay home.
Towards the end of middle school, I had little interest in staying involved in the Jewish community when an especially tumultuous event occurred in my life. About two months before graduating, I was expelled for starting a small fire at school, though, thankfully, no damage was done. When I witnessed my parents’ month-long campaign for me to return to school, I realized how much my Jewish education meant to them.
Though their perseverance made an impact on both the school – which let me graduate – and me, I was not interested in attending a Jewish high school. I enrolled in a local public school, where basketball became my outlet. From there, I was accepted to UCLA and landed a full-time job at Fox Sports while still at university. College was great; I had a dream job, I studied abroad in Siena, Italy and graduated with a BA in sociology
Life was not without tension, though. My parents were committed to hosting Friday night dinners at their home for our family and continued to maintain a traditional Jewish lifestyle. I had to balance my loyalties to my family with my desire to live a more secular life, which included going out on Friday night.
When a relationship with a non-Jewish woman ended because of differences in religious beliefs, I recalled the importance my parents placed on a Jewish education and I wanted to pass it along to my own children. I felt strongly about marrying someone with similar beliefs and traditions, and I knew I needed to further explore my connection to Judaism. At a lecture led by an Orthodox rabbi, I discovered a new side of Judaism – one that focused less on the obligations and more on the beauty that the religion had to offer. Suddenly I felt like Judaism could help explain my greater purpose in life.
That year I attended LimmudLA, where I took part in Jewish learning with a diverse group of Jews who shared a wide range of perspectives, ages and backgrounds. As a result, I became deeply involved in my local Jewish community, particularly with LimmudLA. There, I learned about Masa Israel’s program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and after serious debate, I eventually decided to quit my job as an editor for The Dan Patrick Show on DIRECTV and devote a year to serious Jewish learning and exploration in Jerusalem.
Next year, together with a friend from the Birthright trip I staffed to come to Israel, I will be working on making a documentary called Finding Israel, which follows two young American Jews on a mission to better understand Israel beyond what is seen in the headlines. I look forward to continuing my personal exploration and helping other young adults discover their Jewish identities in Israel and beyond.
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