Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 2 March 2019 / 25 Adar I 5779


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jacob

Dear Rabbi, I am in my early 20’s, have graduated college from a school in a big city where I became interested in my Judaism, but have now returned to my small hometown where there is very little Jewishness. My question is: How I can maintain a Jewish lifestyle when there aren’t any Jewish young people here, and all of my friends are non-Jews who have no interest in what I’ve found meaningful?

Can I go out with my friends as I used to, to movies, to play sports, and to restaurants (I’ll only eat or drink what’s kosher there)? And what would be the main areas of Judaism to keep committed to if I’m not able to keep everything? I know you’ll say it would be better if I was not here in this place at all, but that’s non-negotiable for now. There are reasons why I have to be here, and it could be for a long time. Thanks for any guidance you might offer.

Dear Jacob,

I congratulate you on your decision to come home to your Judaism, but going back to your hometown is not much of a Jewish homecoming.

You are right, that given what you describe I would suggest your leaving there as soon as you can. But if you can’t, for now I suggest the following:

You will not be able to immediately and completely sever your relationship with your friends. And that might not be healthy anyway. So consider which of your old friends think and act in ways which are most compatible with what you know about Jewish values and practices, and which do not. Of the time that you spend with friends, which should be limited, spend more time with the former, and less with the latter.

And of the friends that you determine to be more compatible with your newfound interest in Judaism, make an effort to transform your friendship accordingly. Find and make opportunities to discuss and do things which will be wholesome and productive. Obviously, you need to avoid going to parties, clubs, and bars. Rather, seek to do things with them that will be more educational and enriching.

Going to movies with them occasionally, given your situation, while not the greatest pastime, could be OK as long as it’s a “decent” movie. Sports and exercise are even better, as long as done in a wholesome setting.

About your suggestion of eating “kosher” in a non-kosher restaurant, this is not a good idea. A Jew may not do that, because by doing so he will either look un-kosher or will make the establishment look kosher. That being said, if you ever falter in this, you must at least make sure that signs which identify you as being Jewish, like a kippa or tzitzit, are not visible. Rather, a person would need to tuck in his tzitzit and wear a baseball cap. And even then, he may only eat and drink closed products like kosher soft drinks and pretzels, or cold, whole (uncut) fruits and vegetables.

But even more important than all this is what you should be doing to maintain at least a bare minimum of observance and connection to Judaism. The main areas in which you need to make a special effort in observing, and to continue learning about, are keeping kosher, studying and praying, and keeping Shabbat.

No matter where you are, the ubiquitous grocery chain stores carry nearly everything you need with the commonly-accepted kosher supervision symbols. Contact a rabbi in the closest established Orthodox community for detailed guidance in buying kosher food and setting up what you need in order to keep kosher at home.

As far as learning is concerned, there are so many online resources that there’s no reason you could not order and read books on your own or listen to Torah classes and lectures at least an hour a day. You can also arrange free, long distance learning sessions via phone, Skype, etc. And praying regularly and wearing tefillin, even on your own, is a must.

Finally, it is of utmost importance that you observe the Sabbath and holidays, which will also keep you connected and give you regular opportunities to read, reflect and grow. You should seek frequent hospitality in the nearest Jewish communities in order to regularly observe these occasions in the supportive context of friends and families with whom contact and connection will be invaluable for you in so many important ways.

One last thing. Insofar as there are no other Jewish young people where you are, you need to safeguard against getting involved in personal relationships which would not only deflect you from your commitment to Judaism, but could result in a forbidden marriage and non-Jewish children. So whatever dating you engage in, and it should be for the purpose of marriage, must be done within the Jewish community, for which there are kosher online venues as well.

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