“I took my LSAT on a Monday, and moved here the day after.” — Nechama Leah Kuzman
The girls are singing in sync. We’re seated inside a bamboo hut outside Machon Chana, the dormitory where the girls live. It’s the seventh day of Sukkot and they are completing their prayers following an afternoon feast.
A gust of wind blows over, swaying the plastic plates and tablecloths. The girls continue their prayers, unaffected, their voices rising in unison. The hut accommodates about 25 people, including the family of Rabbi Shloma Majesky, who takes care of the girls in the dorm.
For Nechama Leah, being a part of the school and, more broadly the entire community, felt a lot more like home than it did anywhere else.
“It all comes back to the wholeness, the oneness, that there’s a family and unity to the community,” she’d told me earlier in the week. “It feels like you’re strong because you’re together and people support one another.”
Nechama Leah was born in Serbia, to a Christian mother and agnostic father. When she was 11, her family came to the US, and she has no memory of her hometown.
Although she’d moved into Crown Heights just a few weeks ago, converted to Judaism and even adopted her Jewish name, she’d been in touch with the religion from much earlier.
At 13, when she moved to New Jersey, she became close with a friend whose family regularly observed Sabbath and other Jewish rituals. She would be invited to join them and grew to like the rituals and practices that required the family to come together and spend time with each other. Yet she didn’t quite know that, in time, she would seek refuge in their faith.
After she attended University of Rochester where she studied public health and ethics, she found herself looking for the comfort and consistency she’d seen in the practices of her friend’s family.
“I moved around quite a bit I and I’ve had variety of experiences. And now that every single week I’m going to keep Sabbath — it sets a metronome to my life,” she told me.
The rituals also require families to spend a lot of time with each other — another aspect that had appealed to her.
“I had this forward thinking view that I would like my family to consistently get together on a Friday night for a meal,” she said. “And to share this beautiful experience. And I couldn’t picture living any other way.”
She then moved to a Hasidic community in Boston for a few years, before deciding to move to Crown Heights. Her agnostic father took it hard; both her parents, she said, worried that she would become isolated.
“My father is a very logical and mathematical person,” she said. “To him, it was this thing that was at odds. But I make it a point that for me it’s not contradictory. They can and often do go together.
“I took my LSATs on a Monday, and moved into this community on a Tuesday,” she told me. “The way that I approached becoming religious was after exposing myself to lots of different ideas and thoughts, and I came to one that logically made sense to me.”
She had plans to continue with her education after completing a year at Machon L’Yahadus and living in Crown Heights. But a month after arriving in Crown Heights Kuzman left the community. She was unreachable and her dorm counselors could not say why she left.
She had moved to Crown Heights after a lot of soul-searching and research. What prompted her apparently hasty decision to leave Crown remains unknown.