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  • Hillels of Georgia

Discovering My Religion During the Pandemic

By Keely Culbertson, Georgia Tech '22

Growing up, if I was asked about my religion, I would proudly state, “I’m half-Jewish, half-Catholic.” To anyone with a semblance of religious knowledge, this declaration would elicit raised eyebrows.

To my peers, it prompted a question I heard all too often: “So you get presents for Christmas and Hanukkah?”

I was raised in New Orleans, a city with a religious population dominated by Christianity. Even Mardi Gras, the city’s most infamous event, has roots in Christian lore.

Though I was able to relate to my friends and classmates on some religious level, I knew that I would always be different because I wasn’t “fully” Christian.

Sometimes this concept was disconcerting. Other times, it was favorable. I was never made to go to church or temple, and based on the stories I heard from my classmates about how boring church was, I was thankful to have my weekends free of worship.

As I grew older, my mother would occasionally ask if I thought she and my father had failed me by not raising me with a stronger emphasis on religion.

It was also around that time that I started rejecting religion altogether, so my answer was always an emphatic “Of course not!”

By the end of high school, I had decided on my religious identity: agnostic. Who was I to say whether there was or wasn’t a higher power? I held onto this identity through my first two years at Tech, even through the first couple of months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Returning to campus in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, however, I was desperate for anything to keep me distracted from the fact that I was spending all day in my room, alone and staring at a computer screen.

That’s when my roommate introduced me to the Jewish organizations on campus.

I was hesitant at first, because I still considered myself to be agnostic.

I slowly began to get involved, occasionally picking up Friday Shabbat to-go dinners and meeting some members of the organizations.

After a few weeks, my roommate told me about an eight-week program that met once a week for an hour to discuss Judaism.

For the first time in my life, I was not completely opposed to learning about religion.

After signing up, I immediately called my parents. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing, and I couldn’t believe what I was telling them.

“That was our plan all along,” my mother proudly claimed. The same woman that had tears in her eyes as she asked if she had failed me was now stating that the lack of religious upbringing was intentional. I have always been the type of person that can’t be told to do something; I have to want to do it myself.

I knew that this was also the case when it came to religion. But this was different.

Presented with the opportunities to learn and get involved, I was choosing to participate.

I never saw myself becoming religious, but circumstances change. Plenty of people never saw the pandemic coming, but circumstances change.

This is just the beginning of my religious journey, though. While I’m still unsure about what I believe, I am now more open to the idea of changing my beliefs.

Judaism came at a time when I needed it most.

The existing community, particularly on Tech’s campus, welcomed me with open arms.

Though my journey was different than most, I was never made to feel like an outcast for not having the same Jewish upbringing that many others experienced.

Turning to Judaism was entirely due to a specific set of circumstances, but in a larger sense, was this how it was meant to be?

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