Finding Community in the Scottish Highlands
Our first encounter with the Aberdeen Hebrew Congregation was iconic: on our way toshul for Erev Shabbat services, thinking we might have taken a wrong turn, I suddenly saw two men on the other side of the street, walking with particular urgency. Both wore long dark coats and fedoras. “This is the right way!” I declared with renewed confidence. Sure enough, when we arrived at the small, barely-marked synagogue — just a townhouse tucked in among other nondescript townhouses — we met the two gentlemen. One was leading services, the other was his son-in-law. Counting my husband and 13-year-old son, we were still six shy of a minyan. It became clear that my teenager had a renewed duty to attend synagogue; without him, there would not be a minyan.
Since we had moved to Aberdeen, and weren’t just visiting, the search continued.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, the sanctuary, barely bigger than my family room in Houston, was full. There were perhaps 40 congregants, which included students from the local university. The next morning, there wasn’t a traditional minyan. My 7-year-old — the oldest boy of non-bar-mitzvah age — dressed the Torah. He loved being the center of attention as the other men directed him in winding the garter around the scrolls. When he was called away from the children’s activities on the second day, he was already an “old hand” at the job. I, who had read Torah only months earlier when my older son became bar mitzvah, was not even offered an aliyah.
When it came time for the Annual General Meeting, my husband David and I were among the twelve who turned up. While the annual budget is 1/100th the amount of our Houston synagogue’s budget, the issues are familiar: who would stand for leadership posts, how would changes in our legal status affect us financially, how did potential changes fit within each of our religious philosophies, and what does our constitution say about all this? This shul was established on V-E Day, 1945, in the face of a hopeful but uncertain future. Seventy years later, its membership is more diverse but its constitution remains unchanged. What is our responsibility to tradition? What is our obligation to craft a constitution that reflects our actual application? Finding himself in a familiar position, David invoked Robert’s Rules of Order and analyzed the constitution word-by-word. As new congregants, we were not eligible to run for office, but he was quickly recruited for a committee.
On the other hand, my daughter and I sat in the women’s section on Shabbat; although there was no mechitzah, we literally had to take a back seat to the action. I watched my pre-teen: disconnected from the service, lost in the novel that lay open underneath her prayer book. As she struggled to find her place when I pointed out where we were in the service, I too am struggling to find my place in this community. We are foreigners in a land where the language is familiar but spoken in a completely different way — like Americans in Scotland.
Perhaps, then, becoming part of this community is a process of enculturation. The Aberdeen Jewish community has embraced us. How do I incorporate myself — an American, a feminist, and a passionate, knowledgeable, liberal Jew — into this new community? Just as all of the children at the international school my children now attend must simultaneously learn English and maintain their home languages, we are learning to be part of this new community while determining which traditions of our home community we wish to maintain.
Dr. Margaret Jelinek Lewis, a Wexner Heritage alumna (Houston 06), currently lives in Aberdeen, Scotland where her geologist-husband has accepted an ex-pat assignment. She continues to teach online psychology courses, which keep her connected to Houston, while exploring the Highlands and volunteering at her children’s school here in Scotland. She can be reached at email@example.com.