She removed a tiny silver amulet from her pocket.
“This is what I wanted to tell you about,” Davy shared.
Davy discovered this mysterious looking object near her school, Hunter College, when she was walking with her boyfriend, a Yemenite young man who didn’t happen to be Jewish.
“Just leave it alone,” her boyfriend insisted.
But Davy didn’t. She picked it up and has kept it with her as a good luck charm of sorts in the years since then.
I first met Davy when I was a rabbinic intern at Hunter College Hillel. She was an ambitious learner pursuing a double-major and shared a passion for social justice. As a queer student with a Cuban mother, she didn’t match many of the binaries imposed upon her and found herself seeking a Jewish community where she might feel at home.
Since Hunter, Davy has joined us at Base Hillel, an organization I co-founded with my partner and best friends. Founded on three principles of hospitality, learning and service, we have hosted from our homes hundreds of young Jewish adults, like Davy, for Shabbat dinners, preparing meals for a homeless shelter and Torah study.
Davy has been in Israel these past few months pursuing a master’s degree. As soon as she got back to town, she sent me an email saying she would love to meet up.
Over coffee in Chelsea, Davy continued her story.
Walking in the streets of Jaffa, she and her friend passed a jewelry shop. Realizing how expensive some of the items were, they didn’t enter.
“Girls, girls!” the shopkeeper called to them in Hebrew. “Come in!”
They followed the shopkeeper and toured what was more than an art store, but happened to be the Yemenite Institute of Arts.
As they made their way through the store, her friend stopped her.
“Hey Davy,” she said, “Doesn’t that look like the amulet you carry with you?”
Davy took out the amulet she had found on the streets of the Upper East Side years ago. She showed the owner.
The owner stopped what he was doing and called in his wife.
This was an engagement amulet, he explained, usually given to brides to be before their wedding.
“Mazal tov!” the jeweler’s wife called out, bringing in tea and her wedding album. The jeweler explained this was one of the oldest amulets he had ever seen.
“And what’s this hole?” Davy asked, pointing to a slot on the amulet.
The jeweler explained that this is where a blessing is inserted, composed by a rabbi for the bride. Davy had the jeweler fix the piece so that it might be used as a necklace and came back home with a mission.
“So, rabbi,” Davy asked me, “will you help me write a blessing?”
Davy explained that she feels like she is on a new stage in her life and Jewish journey and wanted a blessing or prayer that reflected her spirit and her wishes going forward.
We sat together there and composed a blessing in Hebrew and Yiddish. Later I would write in as tiny handwriting as possible so to fit inside the slot of her amulet. At that same visit, Davy also showed me an old family letter in Yiddish she wanted translated. One particular line stood out: “with everlasting hatred.”
These two items stood out to me starkly: one, a letter of pain, of the past, and the other, a letter of hope and possibility of a future.
Davy is not getting engaged anytime soon and she’s no longer with her Yemenite non-Jewish boyfriend. But she is nurturing her Judaism in her own ways, writing poetry, pursuing social justice, and engaging with a Jewish community on her own terms.
In surveying the first few months of Base Hillel’s work, sociologist Dr. Steven Cohen wrote “In 40 years of studying Jewish life, I have never seen more positive results.” What we do at Base isn’t so innovative, though. We’re in the business of translation: trying to translate a rich heritage and culture and sharing it with the world. We believe in the teaching of Rav Kook: make the old new and new holy. When Davy shared her story with me, she gave me much more than a task of writing a prayer for an amulet; she was forging her own bond with her Judaism with a little guidance from a teacher. What she doesn’t realize, and what we often forget, is that it’s often our students, millennials who the Jewish community dismisses as aloof and disengaged, who can be our greatest teachers.