This column was written with Ari Filler, a rising first year at Georgetown University.
This month I asked a young man, Ari Filler, who was very active in his Reform synagogue and temple youth group and is now heading off to college, “What do Jewish adults ask the most frequently as you start college?” His response is typical of many in his generation. Throughout the year I will be asking young people for their opinions on various Jewish subjects. Despite the fact that we all pray together we often avoid or don’t have the opportunity to have intergenerational conversations. No one person can answer for the whole generation, but each person can give us a new perspective.
The question: How do you plan to practice Judaism as you go off to (a Jesuit) college?
Ari’s Answer: So as to not put the cart ahead of the horse, I first had to ask myself one fundamental question: Do I want to keep the Jewish faith prominent in my life? The question was uncharted territory for me, for as is the case for so many Jewish children, I was born into the religion. There was never any doubt that I would continue my family’s tradition of attending Hebrew school from a young age.
As I grew up and began to think for myself more, I first protested against attending Hebrew school (going so far as to walk on the opposite side of the street from my mother when she would walk me to temple, to express my resentment) before coming to embrace my involvement with my temple’s youth group and educational program in my high school years. In leaving my hometown for the first time this fall to attend college eight hours away, I now have an unprecedented opportunity to chart my own Jewish path.
Many of the Jewish friends who grew into Jewish life alongside me will certainly make their college years a vacation from religious life. To my mind, Judaism is about community more than scripture, about new friendships more than ancient commentaries. My friends would echo that sentiment. It follows that many of them feel that college, where communities abound (from dorms to sports teams to classes to clubs, finding social environments on campus should be easier than finding a bagel shop in a Jewish neighborhood), is a place where investing time in Jewish life simply isn’t worth it.
I fully understand that instinct – yet I cannot share it. At this pivotal juncture in my life, I am faced with many crucial questions; the question of whether or not I want to continue to actively practice Judaism as I go off to school is not one of the tougher ones. Judaism was a beautiful, enriching element of my childhood – there’s no way I plan to let it disappear from my life in adulthood.
Even kids who, like me, do wish to hold on to Judaism as they venture away from home face roadblocks. We tend to be the ones who have had phenomenal experiences with Judaism growing up, so we are the ones hit hardest by the realization that we can’t just pick up our childhood synagogue and carry it with us out into the great wide world. Our rabbis, our Jewish friends, our families and the co-congregants we came to know well – in short, the very people who have shaped what Judaism means to us, who dominate our memories and bring smiles to our faces – don’t follow us when we set out from home.
The brick-and-mortar Jewish communities available to us in the new cities and towns we will find ourselves in may be too religious or too secular for our taste; they may be too big or too small; or they may simply lack, by virtue of just being different, that innate homeliness we came to know and love from our childhood synagogues. Given that Judaism tends to be more about community than ritual for my friends and me, the idea of immediately embracing a new synagogue or Jewish campus community that may have familiar traditions but not a single familiar face can be particularly off-putting. Change is hard.
I cannot yet know how I’ll handle that change. Should all institutionalized forms of Judaism on campus fail for me – should I struggle to connect with my Hillel, my rabbis, and my new neighborhood’s synagogues – I can always reclaim Judaism as a deeply personal experience. I do not need a Hillel if I want to feel immersed in Judaism or a synagogue if I want to pray. With only my own dedication, I can and will turn Shabbat into a holy respite from the rest of the week. With only my own two lips, I can and will say Mazel Tov when I celebrate and recite Kaddish when I mourn.
Yet even if the new Jewish communities I’m exposed to don’t work for me, engaging with Judaism need not be a lonesome endeavor. In the 21st century, leaving home doesn’t mean leaving my old Judaism behind. I already have plans to call in for my family’s Shabbat dinners. My Jewish childhood friends and rabbis are just a text or a call away. God bless the iPhone for revolutionizing Judaism.
Fundamental to any faith is the notion that we do not only place trust in what we can see and feel, but also in what we simply hope for and decide, without hard evidence, to believe in. We do not shun uncertainty; we embrace it. In that spirit, my conviction that Judaism will remain important in my life yields no promises about how my Judaism will exist and evolve. Perhaps my campus Hillel will feel like a meaningful new community for me; perhaps it won’t. Perhaps I’ll develop strong relationships with the rabbis there; perhaps I won’t. Perhaps Shabbat dinners and services on campus will feel like meaningful moments in my week – and perhaps they’ll feel like roadblocks to my pursuit of the academic and social life I desire.
One of the many virtues of Judaism lies in its ability to be meaningfully practiced in countless ways. It seems to me that if you put 10 Jews together in a room, you’ll get a dozen conflicting opinions on any one issue and 18 different ways of practicing Judaism. As counterintuitive as it seems, I’ll be figuring out the ways in which I will be engaging with this religious tradition on the fly.
As I dive into college life, I will be leaving my temple, my temple youth group, my Jewish family and my Jewish friends all back home. It makes me smile to know that the nagging Judaism-related question in my mind as I become immersed in campus life won’t be if I still want to be strongly Jewish, but how. Clearly, I still don’t have the answer to that question – finding it will be an adventure. Yet I’m not concerned. I grew up learning that Jews never stop asking questions; it’s what we do.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to email@example.com