In early September of 1997, I landed in London as an exchange student from Philadelphia's Arcadia University. Unexpectedly, I found myself in the center of major world events as the country was mourning the death of Princess Diana, who had just died in a horrible car crash. The streets of London were covered with flowers, and I joined the overall somber mood, tapping into the awareness of my own mortality. Like never before, I wanted to find purpose and meaning in my life.

My college roommate and I were housed in a small dorm near City University with 30 other exchange students from the United States. After meeting our neighbors, I discovered that many of these residents were Jewish. This made me feel safe in an unfamiliar country. This semester abroad was my first experience away from my family, and it was comforting to know that other “members of the tribe” were sharing our living quarters.

Flowers for Princess Diana.
Flowers for Princess Diana.

As weeks went by, we became more familiar with each other and our surroundings. On the last day of September, my neighbor announced that the following night would be Rosh Hashanah. Though I knew little of its significance, when he proposed that we all walk together to a synagogue, I agreed to join the group. The next evening, we dressed up in our finest clothes and gathered outside.

This was before navigation apps, and our local “Moses” was not too familiar with the way to the synagogue. We walked for hours in different directions, and soon, the simple plan turned into a disaster. After hours of searching, we were exhausted and returned back to our dorm without ever stepping foot into a synagogue.

Near the university.
Near the university.

Disappointed and frustrated, our “leader” offered to conduct a Rosh Hashanah service in our communal living room. He grew up in a somewhat traditional family and knew how to read prayers. While most of the others were no longer interested, I was even more enthusiastic about this plan.

It touched my heart to listen to a fellow student read from a Hebrew text in the dim light. It felt like my soul recognized the unfamiliar language and bonded to the prayers of my ancestors. It was a magical, innate pull. I was far from my family and yet I no longer felt alone; I was connected to my people. I covered my hair with a light blue scarf, as this was the only sign of reverence and modesty I could think of. I couldn’t hold back tears and cried for all the missed Jewish milestones of my life. That evening, after searching for the synagogue on the narrow streets of London, I had finally found my path.

The Baal Shem Tov once instructed his disciple, Rabbi Ze’ev Kitzes to blow the shofar for the entire congregation, and to prepare by studying Kabbalistic meditations. Taking this responsibility very seriously, Rabbi Ze’ev wrote down proper intentions to guide him during the blowing of the shofar.

Finally, the morning of Rosh Hashanah arrived, and Rabbi Ze’ev stood in the center of the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue. He reached into his pocket to discover that his notes were missing. With the entire community waiting, he composed himself enough to fulfill the basic requirements. When he finished blowing the shofar, tears of disappointment filled his eyes. Rabbi Ze’ev felt that he had disappointed his teacher, who had entrusted him with this sacred task.

Broken-hearted, he approached the Baal Shem Tov who reassured him, “There are many gates leading to the palace. Each door has its own unique code to unlock it. Yet, there is one master key that fits all the locks, and that is a broken heart.”

I often feel like it is impossible to make up for all the missed opportunities of the years that I grew up in the former Soviet Union without any knowledge of Judaism. Yet the story reminds me that it is not the lack that defines me, but my yearning for connection and clarity.

I often remember listening to my fellow student reading those mysterious Hebrew prayers after our long search for a synagogue. There have been many big decisions and commitments made along my complicated journey, but on that Rosh Hashanah evening in London, I realized that regardless of the physical address on the map, our inner compass can always bring us home to our Jewish heritage.

When I hear the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, I imagine the primal scream of my soul calling to me, as if to reassure me, “I am here; you are home.”