In this case, mom knew best


“Go, maybe you’ll meet someone.”

I had been broken up with my latest non-Jewish boyfriend for a few months when my mom gave me another of those nagging reminders that she required me to 1) get married to 2) a nice Jewish boy 3) soon. I was still in junior college and my exposure to Jewish guys was limited — as was my interest.

Having grown up with Judaism on the backburner, I found it neither necessary nor interesting to seek out a Jewish guy as a life partner. I hadn’t been to a Shabbat dinner in years, and my last Jewish observance was a college Chanukah party. Yet my mother, who practiced roughly as little as I did, was persistent in demanding that I bring home a member of the Tribe.

I ignored her pleas for me to get involved in something Jewish until she pushed me to a near-breaking point.

“Fine!” I shouted into my iPhone one Friday afternoon in September. UC San Diego’s (UCSD) Hillel had put out a web blast about its “Welcome Shabbat” event, and I begrudgingly threw on a dress, did something to my hair and drove across town to La Jolla.

Of course, this being my first event operating on Jewish Standard Time (JST), I wrongly assumed that 6:30 p.m. meant 6:30 p.m., not 7:15. Not only was I arriving alone, but I was going to be the first one there. I sighed at the projected awkwardness and thought to myself, “Mom, this better be worth it.”

Approximately three seconds after walking through the door, I met my future husband.

Zev was a junior and helped organize weekly Shabbat dinners and services with the campus Hillel. As he was in charge of overseeing the room setup and food prep, he and a handful of his friends were busy getting things going.

Mistaking me for a first-year student at UCSD, Zev began his normal shpiel about Hillel activities and observance opportunities, to which I politely nodded my head and answered his small talk questions, which I later learned were all the wrong answers to give to someone you might be interested in.

“Are you a freshman here?” No, I go to community college.

“Are you going to try to transfer here?” No, I plan to transfer to Florida State.

Despite our obvious incompatibility — I was planning to move 2,000 miles away, after all — he continued to ask me questions about myself as any good peer engagement leader should. When 6:30 JST came around, Zev stood on a chair and invited everyone to join a prayer service. 

I reluctantly walked to the Conservative minyan’s designated prayer room, hoping I’d remember some of the prayers from my youth. I also hoped to snag a seat next to this tall yarmulke-clad fellow who had been so nice when I showed up.

A few minutes passed and I didn’t see Zev in the room. Looking around, I finally caught a glimpse of him at the far end of the building, praying in the room designated for Orthodox services.

“Mom, what have you done?!” I screamed in my head.

Over the next few weeks, Zev persisted in working to get me involved with Hillel Shabbat activities and invited me to Oneg with his friends at an off-campus residence of Jewish students, which they endearingly called the “Jew House.”

I found myself singing Havdalah by candlelight, reciting the prayers during Kabbalat Shabbat and participating in Hillel service projects. Even more astounding, I found myself loving it! Was my motivation to nurture my nearly extinguished flame of Judaism or to pursue a flame with the boy who shared these traditions with me?

A little of both, I suppose.

During Shabbat dinners over the coming weeks, Zev announced various meetings, events and projects for Hillel with the hope that I would decide to join. But Zev wanted to see me outside of Jewish events, too. One evening after an Oneg, Zev walked me back to my car and invited me to a party at the Jew House on Sunday evening. I said I’d try to make it, wished him a “Shabbat Shalom” and drove off.

Later, I learned that after I left, he raced back to the Jew House and informed the core group that he may have just promised that new girl a party on Sunday night and so they needed to help him get something together.

It’s been 3 1/2 years since my first Shabbat experience surrounded by community, and I now cherish Shabbat dinner as one of the highlights of my week. Over the course of dating a shomer Shabbat and kashrut-observant guy, I picked up these practices on my own, finding it fascinating to learn more about Judaism and the missing piece from my life.

Ours is a Hillel story as old as time, but it reinforced the strongest Jewish value I’ve ever learned: Listen to your mother.

Claire Olsher works at a Jewish preschool in Los Angeles. She’ll have a new, more Jewish-sounding last name beginning in June. 

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