How to Live with Two Religious Paths

By Emily Hilsberg I am seventeen years old, and I am Jewish and Buddhist. I study mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery. I have been going to Deer Park since I was six years old. This year marks my eleventh year being a part of the Sangha. I am also involved in my Jewish community. I am a member of Temple Beth Am’s youth group, and I have volunteered at many Jewish organizations. Every summer, I attend the family retreat at Deer Park and then I spend a month at Camp Ramah, a Jewish sleep-away camp in Ojai, California. When people ask me my religion, I say, “I’m Jewish and Buddhist.” Their reaction is always the same. They ask, “Why do you have two religions? You can only commit to one god.” This idea is false.

mb65-How1Thich Nhat Hanh has taught me so much since 2003. Thay says that you need to show compassion to others and that compassion is the basis for true happiness. Similarly, one of my Camp Ramah directors has had a huge impact on my life. He taught me to be a person who fights for change. Be that person who steps up and takes charge and is always trying to make the community a better place. I’ve also learned that lesson at Deer Park. For example, one year some developers wanted to build houses on the ridge facing the large meditation hall. The community fought to preserve the ridge and after many months, they earned enough money to save it.

Many people underestimate others. I was born with Asperger’s disorder, which affects my brain, and I’ve struggled socially and in school. People have often underestimated my capabilities. I’ve been beaten down by the speech and actions of others. Administrators at my elementary school had no confidence in my abilities and the so-called resource specialist often yelled at me and gave me answers to classwork without teaching me how to do the work myself. The principal did nothing to help me. My fifth grade teacher did not understand me and did not help me when other kids bullied me because she never caught them in the act. Kids can be so mean and they often harassed me! As a result of my life experiences, I want to make a change in the world.

I’ve learned so much from going to Deer Park and from the five summers I’ve spent at Ramah. I can be who I want to be and I can teach others to be active leaders. I recently attended Thay’s public talk in Pasadena. My mom was on staff and I decided to help out. I had a long talk with one of the brothers, whom I hadn’t seen in years. I told him that I’ve changed. I learned so much from Deer Park and appreciate how much it’s helped me. He was very impressed. Later that day, while my mom and I were driving home, I thought to myself, “I am proud to be both a Jew and Buddhist. Having both makes me stronger as a person.”

I consider Sister Ho Nghiem, one of the monastic sisters, to be my godmother. She’s known me since I was a young girl. Before the children’s program was started, I often spent time in the sisters’ hamlet. One year when she broke her leg, I visited her in her room to cheer her up and keep her company. For many years I helped her in the bookstore. When I saw Sister Ho Nghiem at the public talk, I was overjoyed. I can’t imagine my life without my brothers and sisters of Deer Park. The practice has grown on me, and I hope to teach it to my own children one day.

Buddhism teaches me to be more compassionate and understanding toward other people who are suffering. Judaism teaches me to be close to god and to be the person I want to become. In my mind, these lessons are very much alike. Both focus on ethics and the value of strong community. I am fortunate to have two very supportive communities to guide me on my path: my Jewish community and my Buddhist community.

Emily Hilsberg, Crystal Mountain of the Heart, lives in Culver City, California.

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