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This is America: I returned to synagogue for the Jewish High Holidays. It felt like going home.

USA TODAY
USA TODAY
 2021-09-16

Every member of my synagogue knows where to find my family during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur . We always sit in the front row of the extended seating section of our New Jersey temple, far enough away so we can lightly talk during services but not so far back that we can't see anything. Mostly we sit there because it's the preeminent, prestigious people-watching spot. What can I say? The Oliver family likes being in-the-know.

I live in Washington, D.C. The last time I went home for Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – was in 2019. I couldn't tell you anything meaningful about the service that year. Consider me then a jaded Jew: Bring on the customs (and food, especially the food), spare me your thoughts and prayers.

But something changed during the pandemic. Because everything changed during the pandemic.

When I waltzed into Rosh Hashanah services – fully vaccinated and masked up, as you should be too – I felt something I didn't expect.

Like I belonged. Like I was home.

I’m David Oliver , an entertainment reporter focusing on diversity and equality at USA TODAY, and I’d like to welcome you to this week’s "This Is America," a newsletter about race, identity and how they shape our lives. If you're observing Yom Kippur today, I hope you have an easy and meaningful fast. If you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, read this (and the rest of this newsletter).

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When I waltzed into Rosh Hashanah services  – fully vaccinated and masked up, as you should be too – I felt something I didn't expect. Like I was home. yoglimogli, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Don't say 'Happy Yom Kippur': How to greet someone observing the Jewish Day of Atonement

But first, race and justice news we're watching:

A special note: USA TODAY is collaborating with Tougaloo College for a free virtual event on the roles law enforcement, media, government and education leaders serve in civil rights movements. This is the first of three virtual events USA TODAY will host as part of the “Seven Days of 1961” project. The event is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m. EDT. Register here . Read more about the event.

My Judaism could no longer fade to the background

I never wanted to go to Hebrew school growing up. It was just something I did. Like clearing my plate after dinner, feeding my pet fish or taking out the trash. A chore.

Sure, I was proud to be Jewish . I didn't know any other way to be.

The years skated by and my Jewish identity faded further into the background. My identity as a gay man solely shaped me in my early 20s, and while I appreciated Jewish customs, I didn't feel a deep connection to my faith.

But then I suddenly couldn't go home because of the pandemic. My family and I threw together a large Zoom seder for Passover in 2020 , followed by a less enthusiastic one in spring 2021. The Jewish traditions I took for granted slipped out of my fingers.

Conversational chaos, prayers and hope: My Passover seder on Zoom in the time of coronavirus

When the time came to make plans for Rosh Hashanah this year, I knew exactly where to go: back to New Jersey and back to temple.

But would the delta variant prevent my fully vaccinated family from feeling safe enough to attend services in-person? We went back and forth but ultimately felt comfortable attending a fully vaccinated and masked service.

My grandfather saved our people-watching spot for us, and I spotted faces old and new – my Hebrew school education director, family friends, a new rabbi.

The rabbi's sermon focused on how easy it could be to infuse our day-to-day lives with Jewish rituals. Say a prayer before you go to bed, for example. While the prayers may not be for me, I'm finding other ways to practice. For starters: writing about it.

In case you missed: What is Rosh Hashanah? Here's what you need to know about the Jewish New Year

My colleague Lindsay Deutsch eloquently wrote about ignorance among younger generations about Judaism late last year – particularly regarding the Holocaust. One survey found 63% of millennials and Gen Z were unaware 6 million Jewish people were killed. Anti-Semitism regularly pops into pop culture.

I have received hate mail for being Jewish and reported an incident to the police after someone threatened my life. Sickening, vile, evil.

It's not that I didn't care about any of this before. But sitting there in temple, signing the ketubah (Jewish wedding contract) at a close friend's wedding recently and sitting at my desk now, I must speak up. Louder than before – can you hear me screaming off this page? I AM SPEAKING UP.

I don't feel scared about someone hating me for being Jewish. I feel proud in a way I didn't know possible. Proud of my family, of my community, of my identity.

I usually fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. This year I'd like to apologize for many things, one of which is my passive take on being Jewish. Time for more action.

Will 2022 be the year I finally join a synagogue in Washington? Maybe. But I know that no matter where I go, my heart is a Jewish one.

This is America is a weekly take on current events from a rotating panel of USA TODAY Network journalists with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. If you're seeing this newsletter online or someone forwarded it to you, you can subscribe here . If you have feedback for us, we'd love for you to drop it here .

Read up: This is America: Anti-Semitism is not a punchline

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: This is America: I returned to synagogue for the Jewish High Holidays. It felt like going home.

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