Sunday, September 5, 2010
My Love for Jewish Pluralism
I came to learn that many Reform Jews who grew up similarly to me in the United States have this exact experience. As a result, they feel like Hillel is not for them and that they are different and stop trying to become a part of a university’s Jewish community. I took a different approach entirely. I was determined to become comfortable in my new Jewish community. I began to ask questions. I asked my more observant friends to teach me how to lead the traditional Kiddush and Birkat Hamazon . My greatest moments of growth during college were a result of the personal, daily interaction I had with peers from all walks of Jewish life. I began to find meaning in more traditional Judaism. As I studied and began to understand more about traditions, I decided to keep Shabbat and kashrut in accordance to Jewish law. I found myself becoming more comfortable in prayer settings that differed from that which I was raised.
After spending two years at a local community college, I transferred to Binghamton University. This was where I began to understand and love the struggles which pluralism presented. Binghamton is approximately thirty percent Jewish, with students from all different types of Jewish backgrounds. In terms of Jewish life, I spent the majority of my time serving in leadership roles within my campus’ Hillel. My main job was to oversee the Pluralism Team- the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox chairs. The Reform chair was a product of NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth), and the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Camping system. The Conservative chair was a product of USY (United Synagogue Youth) and the Ramah Camping system. The Orthodox co-chairs both attended Orthodox Jewish day schools throughout their lives. Many of these people not only became my teachers, but also my good friends. We often met to discuss the various issues we faced building a pluralistic community. On several occasions, we attempted to hold pluralistic services on our annual “Unity Shabbat.” Often, everyone involved would leave the prayer experience unsatisfied or frustrated. On one Shabbat in particular, we found a balance that seemed to meet the needs of the majority of students in attendance. During Friday night services, the Conservative chair and I led Kabbalat Shabbat together, using a guitar, until we reached Ma’ariv. This pleased both those who appreciate the use of musical instruments on Shabbat, as well as those who prefer a more traditional prayer experience. The challenge of meeting the needs of everyone often seemed overwhelming. For that one Shabbat, it seemed as if we came pretty close to succeeding.
My Rabbi taught me countless life lessons that I continue learn from long after I graduated from college. When talking about my interest in the rabbinate, he often joked that he couldn’t teach me how to be a Rabbi, but he could teach me exactly what not to do. Through mistake after mistake, I learned how to empower and engage others, even when a task could get done much more quickly if I did it myself. I learned how to apologize when I was wrong. I also learned how to ask for help when I needed it. My rabbi taught me how to be an active listener, and how to become comfortable with silence. During his first week of work during my second semester of school, I walked into his office unsure of how I was going to continue to afford tuition, and faced the overwhelming task of becoming a financially independent adult. He had no connection to me, but immediately listened to me and helped me find a solution. As the semesters flew by I found myself sharing my fears, dreams, and struggles with him, always leaving conversations with him feeling like I was connected to something greater than myself.
What does it mean to be pluralistic? After my initial experiences it college, I thought that, while we were preaching a Jewish community for everyone, we were really just catering to the needs of the most observant students, or what I like to call the “frummest common denominator.” Can something truly be completely pluralistic? I still don’t know. I grew to love my Hillel, and began to see the value in the struggle for pluralism.
Ever since I started high school, I knew that I wanted to be a Judaic Studies major. I came from a home that gradually lost interest in Judaism, and eventually disengaged from synagogue life and home religious practice. As my family drifted away from Judaism, I began searching. I searched for spiritual experiences, new rituals, music, prayer, and connections to community. I always wanted to learn more. When I was presented with the opportunity to study Judaism in an academic setting, I did not even consider any other options. As a senior Judaic Studies major, I began the dreaded job search. I had a long list of organizations I thought which I might want to apply for, and a whole list of Israel programs that in which I dreamed of participating. I decided to earn money first, and maybe go to Israel in the future. I found my ideal Jewish job in Greensboro, North Carolina. As a New Yorker, many people asked why I was moving away from the great Jewish community that was in the Northeast. I applied to be a Fellow at the American Hebrew Academy (AHA), the nation’s premiere pluralistic Jewish boarding school. I often have a hard time explaining the Fellowship, and exactly what my job is. I am an assistant houseparent, living in a house full of freshman girls. Depending on the need, I serve as their nurse, mom, mentor, tutor or big sister, depending on the time of day (or night.) I plan programs to help get the girls acclimated to campus, and educate them on teen issues that affect them, as well as plan social programs for fun. I also student teach for the Judaic Studies department on the academic side of campus. In addition, I have interned with the campus’ Admissions and Fundraising departments. Finally, I can also be found working with the Deans of Jewish life on Jewish programming.
My students come from all areas of the country, world, and Jewish background. In my house alone last year, I had girls from Wisconsin, New York, Colorado, Texas, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, Maryland, and Aruba, Israel, Argentina, and Mexico. These girls identified as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and everything in between. As sundown approached every Shabbat, the girls in my house would all rush around the house borrowing each others clothes, style their hair and enjoy the excitement of Shabbat. It didn’t matter that one girl didn’t use a computer on Shabbat, or another girl ordered in food Saturday, or another girl read Torah in a minyan while her roommate attended a more traditional service where males were only counted as part of the prayer group. Is pluralism just being able to peacefully coexist with other Jews? I’m still not sure.
Before returning to my second year of work at the Academy, I spent a month immersed in the pluralistic utopia of Brandeis, California known as the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI.) Like AHA, I am surrounded by Jews from different states, countries, and Jewish backgrounds. What’s different this time? I’m a participant, no longer in charge. This program, designed for 18-26 year olds, asks its participants to constantly step out of their comfort zones. I found myself each Shabbat really struggling with my desire to keep Shabbat in a traditional way, while maintaining my participation in all communal activities. It is BCI tradition to do Israeli dancing on Friday nights. This requires the use of a sound system and a computer to play music. I would normally refrain from this type of activity on Shabbat, and wasn’t sure what to do when it was announced on the first Shabbat of the program that this would follow dinner. Every Shabbat I found myself staying in the Hadar Ohel with a few other participants also uncomfortable with the dancing. We sang the traditional Birkat Hamazon and sang songs until the rest of the group had finished dancing. It bothered me that not everyone could participate in all aspects of BCI’s communal Shabbat experience. As we reached the last Shabbat of the summer, I had had enough. When it came time for Israeli dancing, I decided that for a half an hour, I would be uncomfortable for the sake of the community. I danced. I think I even enjoyed it. Did I feel a little confused and uncomfortable afterwards? Absolutely. Did I hope that maybe my actions might spur someone to maybe consider adding some traditional elements into their Shabbat practice, even if it made them a little uncomfortable at first? A part of me did. Is pluralism just a compromise? Should we have to compromise our own values to accommodate someone else’s differing beliefs? I ‘m not convinced.
What do I know? I know that pluralism is worth fighting for. Pluralism needs to be a dynamic dialogue. I believe, and will always fight to ensure that all forms of Judaism are seen as valid. In a pluralistic community, I think that unfortunately, not everyone can feel welcome. Individuals need to believe in the values of pluralism in order to be a part of a pluralistic community. I know that in Binghamton, New York, the Hillel is constantly creating new opportunities to meet students where they are and engage students in a Judaism that is meaningful. I know that in Brandeis, California, young Jews are living side by side in a pluralistic community and defining what kind of adult Jews they want to be every summer. I also know that in an amazing school in Greensboro North Carolina, Jews from all walks of life are living side by side every day, learning together, praying together, eating together, living together, teaching each other, and growing together. I am eager to spend this next year addressing the challenges that living in pluralistic environment present. Working in this environment is truly a microcosm of the Jewish world. The young people from this place will make an impact on the greater Jewish world and their home communities because they can relate to and learn from any Jew, regardless of their specific Jewish beliefs and practices. I can’t think of a better place to be to explore my Judaism, and figure out how I can best serve the Jewish world as a professional. I’ve heard the argument said that pluralism is merely tolerance. I cannot and will not accept that as my definition of pluralism. Pluralism has to be more.