“We can’t run away from who we are inside” — Eliana Amundson

A TOKEN FROM HOME: “Even though they look like it, they are not prayer beads. The token is a pearl necklace from my mother. It symbolises to me that we can move to a new place and grow and flourish, but we can’t run away from who we are inside. We need to know ourselves, heal ourselves, so that we can be free wherever we are.” — Eliana. Photo by Samira Sadeque

At the corner of the Beis Levi Yitzchak synagogue in Crown Heights, a small clearing lets the sun into the prayer rooms.

It is the close of Yom Kippur, and as the sun sets behind an array of buildings in the neighborhood, rays of sunlight slice across this clearing into the second floor of the Synagogue. The back of the prayer room, behind a divider, is full of girls and women of different ages.

As we approach the end of Neilah, the last of the prayers of Yom Kippur, Eliana stands in the row in front of me, hugging the girls on both her side, slowly moving to the singing. There is a sense of calm in her, even though she — along with the women here — have been fasting for almost about 25 hours.

Even though she is from a secular family that didn’t observe the rituals, Eliana grew up celebrating Yom Kippur. So this wasn’t the first time she was fasting.

“Obviously you do it slowly,” she says. “It’s not like I just dove into the deep end. You slowly ease into things.”

Eliana’s journey began more than three years ago when she found a Chabad organization while in college at California State University Northridge.

“I always wanted to connect more to my heritage, find out who I am, where my family is from,” she says.

In her first year of college, during the annual celebration of the Festival of Sukkot, she came across a rabbi on campus who was holding the ceremonial lulov (a palm branch) and etrog (citron), and offered to guide her in the prayers.

“And I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’” says Eliana. And with that one question, she began her spiritual journey.

She soon began to learn about the holidays and started observing the rituals.

Even though many of her classmates on a similar journey at Machon L’Yahadus face resistance from their families, Eliana says she got lucky with her family’s support.

“There are six lawyers and a judge in my family so they were waiting for me to go to law school,” she laughs. “But other than that, they realize I’m happy. They’re fine.”

This year, as soon as she graduated from California State University Northridge, she moved to Crown Heights to fully immerse herself in the community.

“It just felt right. It just felt like okay this is the good part,” she says. “I felt that this is my truth. Everyone has their own truth, this is mine.”