BY AMY MALTZ
For someone who actively describes herself as non-religious, one of, if not the most, essential and grounded parts of myself is absolutely my religious identity. I was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish household. For those unfamiliar with this terminology, just as there are different denominations of Christianity (Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian, etc.), there are also different denominations of Judaism; The most traditional being Orthodox, followed by Conservative and Reform. Reconstructionism sits somewhere in between Conservative and Reform Judaism. I grew up with services spoken primarily in Hebrew and traditional Jewish rituals actively being observed. However, men and women mingled together in our synagogue, and as a young girl, I was encouraged to become a Bat Mitzvah (a coming of age ritual that in Orthodox circles is reserved solely for boys).
Even without the ritualistic practice of attending Friday night and Saturday morning synagogue services, my upbringing would have remained quintessentially Jewish. Mezzuzahs are carefully nailed to each main doorway in my childhood home and there are kitschy plaques with punny Jewish sayings adorning our kitchen “Shalom Y’all”. My mother never failed to nag me about my homework or my driving, or my friends stating: “I can’t help it! I’m a Jewish mother”, and we never missed a community Passover seder. One of my clearer childhood memories is a Kindergarten class around Christmas time. Santa had come to our class and when it was my turn to sit on his knee, I proudly proclaimed “Santa doesn’t come to MY house.”
As I went through high school, I started to leave the ritualistic part of Judaism behind, rarely going to Synagogue and quitting my attendance of “Jew Crew” (our local Jewish youth group). However, my identity as a Jewish woman was often the one that came up most often in discussions of background or family. Even as I started college at the University of San Diego, a Catholic university, one of the first things that I did was join the Jewish Student Union. I learned to appreciate religion as a force for world-wide change and community building rather than something that enhances my own spiritual exploration. It was with this mindset that I chose to apply to Loretto Volunteers, yet another faith-based organization.
If there is one testament to the fact that faith and spirituality are inherently tied up in community, it has been my experience as a Loretto Volunteer. Over and over again, I have been blown away at the level of consideration that Loretto has taken to incorporate and welcome my culture into our El Paso community. One individual Loretto Community member who has gone above and beyond to acknowledge Jewish traditions has been Sister Liz. The holiest days of the year in Judaism typically fall in September. This year, Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) happened to fall on the same evening as one of our first dinners with Loretto Community members in El Paso. What with settling into our new home and work sites, I had completely forgotten about Rosh Hashanah. As we were driving home that evening though, I received a text from Sister Liz “Happy New Year! I hope that it is very sweet and filled with new adventures, promises and gifts!”. It was also Sister Liz who took the time to learn about and bake a loaf of Challah (braided bread traditionally eaten at Jewish gatherings) for our group to share in solidarity following the Pittsburg shooting. I was so touched that a sister of Loretto had taken the time to acknowledge my faith (even when I wasn’t aware of it myself!).
My housemates at Praxedes House have also actively attempted to uplift each of our personal identities whether it be faith, culture or otherwise. When I announced that I would like to set up a menorah and make potato latkes in our house during the week of Hanukkah this year, my housemates didn’t just tolerate this practice, but actively participated in it. In doing so, we were actively building the strength of our community. On the second to last night of Hanukkah, we decided to work on expanding our community beyond just our house and hold a Hanukkah party. A few days before, Amelie and I sat down like second graders planning our dream birthday party and planned out a guest list, menu, games and even a playlist. Co-workers from our work sites and local El Paso friends gathered all together to play dreidel and eat latkes. The experience of sharing my faith traditions as a practice of strengthening community has shown me more than ever, that the two rely on one another. It is a welcome reminder that as powerful as faith institutions have been and still are mechanisms for power and control; it is simultaneously a catalyst for the power of community. El Paso has never felt more like home.
Amy Maltz is from Salem, Oregon and is a recent graduate of the University of San Diego with a major in Ethnic Studies and a double minor in Women’s and Gender Studies as well as Theology and Religious Studies. This year Amy will join the first cohort in El Paso, Texas as the volunteer for The Opportunity Center, a multi-faceted resource center for homeless folks. Amy loves to read, dance, have deep talks and is an aspiring vegan.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.