Here’s me: My name is Teresa Konopka (Hebrew name: Hephzi). I investigate airplane crashes for a living. I enjoy piano and a half-dozen other hobbies, and my cat’s name is Ms. Kitty.

As my hobbies grew to include piano, soccer, ultimate frisbee, badminton, surfing, swimming and parkour, I never shook the feeling that observant Judaism only accommodates a particular kind of Jew.

And a particular kind of Jew I was not.

Some people walk into the synagogue and find themselves, but whenever I attend since having moved to San Diego to launch my career, I’ve usually found people two or three times my age. So on Friday, July 14, 2023, I decided to show up for something different: a Chabad Young Professionals Encounter Shabbaton in Los Angeles.

I left my office early that Friday to drive two hours north to Los Angeles. I had signed up hoping to get out of the house, enjoy myself and make new friends. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The GPS went cold outside a contemporary beach house. Inside, dozens of young Jews assembled for a friendly meet-up. This was it.

I was just one among 200 young professionals. We were a diverse crowd hailing from all over California and beyond; some drove from Arizona, and one had even flown from Canada.

I caught sight of a piano and let the keys play a few melodies for the others before the rabbis and rebbetzins present—Mendel and Fayge Zajac, Yigal and Elana Rosenberg, and Shmulik Friedman—gathered us all around for an icebreaker activity where we all got to meet one another.

For Shabbat, two other women and I stayed in the home of a lovely host family in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Grateful for their hospitality in an era of soaring hotel prices, we knocked on their door late Friday afternoon, luggage in tow.

Our hosts made us immediately at home—even their dog was welcoming (she didn’t bark at me). I was even more delighted by how easily my weekend roommates and I opened up to one another as we prepared for Shabbat. Even lightly chatting about our shared Jewish experiences gave us a profound sense of togetherness, as if we had been long-lost sisters.

Friday night, sitting surrounded by people my age at Chabad of SOLA’s Kabbalat Shabbat, I realized how much community matters. If a mitzvah seems hard when I’m alone and living in a Jewish vacuum, it’s much easier with a community. Singing alone at home on Shabbat is one kind of experience, but with so many peers, the services burst into life.

Over a delicious Shabbat meal later that night, I found myself chatting easily with the rebbetzin and simply enjoying connecting to Jews at my station in life. Jews like me.

I looked around. I saw Jews wearing tzitzit and Jews wearing tattoos, Jews wearing long skirts and Jews wearing pants. But that didn’t seem to matter here: We were Jews, bonding over our shared heritage.

My new friends and I enjoyed a walking tour of the local synagogues on Shabbat afternoon, led by a rabbi who surprised us with a gymnastics-style flip halfway through the excursion. After Shabbat, he’d cement his growing reputation as “the circus rabbi” by juggling flaming torches.

Back at Chabad of SOLA, we heard from David Sacks. An observant Jew, he’s won Emmy Awards and Golden Globes. His career journey fascinated me, but what got my attention was how he stood by his values, refusing to work on Shabbat even when it cost him.

Even after Shabbat’s many poignant moments, Havdalah caught me off-guard. Yehudah Solomon, a local musician best known for his role as Moshav Band’s lead singer, strummed a guitar and led us through a musical version of the ceremony.

The candle flickered, spices wafted through the air, and the 200 of us gathered around to sing along. My old feeling that Judaism didn’t have a place for my idiosyncrasies seemed laughable now.

Driving home on Sunday afternoon, I reflected on a weekend that helped me feel that there’s more than one way to be Jewish.

I’d made new connections and fast friends, and I was laughing along to the good memories replaying in my head. But most impactful for me, I’d seen hundreds like me—young Jewish professionals of all backgrounds and interests—unite to celebrate the rich traditions that bind us.

Returning to San Diego, I was eager to show up for more Jewish experiences and more Judaism. After all, if a Hollywood screenwriter can become observant and a fire-juggling acrobat can become a rabbi, a piano-playing engineer from San Diego can embrace her Judaism more fully, too.