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This summer, during my vacation to Spain, I discovered that the religious atmosphere is radically different from that of Long Island.  My brother, Dylan, had decided to have his bar mitzvah in Europe, rather than having a traditional reception at home.  The bar mitzvah vacation was originally supposed to have taken place in Israel, but these plans became impossible upon the eruption of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict.  Truthfully, I have never been much of a believer in Judaism, and yet I was quite moved by the following event.

On the evening that we were to meet with the Rabbi, we carefully explored the street that was specified in the address, but could not find the synagogue.  At long last, my father stumbled upon a man with a long black beard – an arguably “Jewish-looking” man, to our eyes – going into a smallish, whitewashed building.  My father politely, yet abruptly, stopped him.

“Excuse me, Señor.  I’m looking for Rabbi Khalili.”“Rabbi Khalili?  I do not know this man,” he said in Spanish.“Is this building the synagogue?”The man paused, gave my father a sidelong glance, then replied in a hushed tone.  “Erm, yes.  It is.  What is it that you need here?” he said distrustfully.

After this mysterious encounter, we entered the building to find that it was a beautiful, two-room synagogue, adorned with Hebrew and Spanish phrases, and with various bits of traditional Jewish decorum hanging on the walls.  A few men near the rear entrance were removing prayer shawls and yarmulkes from inconspicuous white shopping bags.  The windows were gleaming panes of stained glass.  We later discovered that these were “one-way” stained glass windows, which explained why we could not identify the synagogue from the outside.

My family and I were awestricken.  How amazingly different this was than in New York!  This was not a huge, obvious synagogue like ours on Long Island; this was about the size of a small house.  It was almost like a shelter—a haven for the local Jewish community.  The congregants did not flaunt their culture; instead, they were inward and satisfied.  They were reserved, yet dignified and determined.

Although I have never been an ardent Jew, I believe that I had a strong revival of spirit that day.  I realized that not everyone has the pleasure of practicing his religion freely, even though it seems routine in New York.  The suspicious and defensive tone of the congregant, the one-way stained glass windows, the fact that men had to hide their tallises1 in shopping bags—all made me realize that the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs is not a mundane gift.  It is an extraordinary privilege that I will always be thankful for.

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