I began my college search, my grandpa assigned me the same exercise he’d given
my mother: Write down what I wanted and did not want from a school and rate how
important each factor would be in my ultimate decision. Having been very
involved in my temple community, on my list of “wants,” with a 70% “importance
factor,” was a large Jewish population. Ultimately I decided to attend New York
University, which had the largest Jewish population of any private university.
Who would have thought, three years later, the majority of my school friends
would not be Jewish—and that, because of this, I would learn to become a
kind of shaliach, a cultural and religious ambassador for my people?
Here are the do’s and don’ts of sharing religion I’ve learned along the way.
Don’t force knowledge on an outsider. Wait either to be asked
questions about Jewish beliefs and traditions, or for a situation to arise in
which the teaching opportunity comes naturally. For example, when non-Jewish
friends accompanied me to New York’s Lower East Side to buy challah and dessert
for a Rosh Hashanah dinner I was co-hosting in my dorm, I translated the bakery
clerk’s parting Hebrew words to us: “ L’shanah Tovah means Happy New
Year.” When, during the dinner, we dipped apples in honey and a friend asked
why, I explained that we eat these two sweet foods together to represent our
hopes for a sweet New Year. And when questioned about the significance of saying
blessings before the traditional holiday meal, I explained that we thank God for
granting us the ability to perform certain tasks and for providing the items we
are blessing. My friend Frank, a Catholic who had always been interested in
Judaism, was so intrigued by my answers, he went with me the next day to NYU’s
services. And when the rabbi called for an aliyah “all students who
studied abroad last semester,” Frank proudly stood with the rest of the
congregants on the bimah as everyone around him chanted the Torah
Guard against proselytizing. Rather than trying to persuade people of
the wisdom inherent in Judaism, honor the religious diversity that enriches the
campus experience by asking your non-Jewish friends to share their religion with
you.To be honest, at first I felt uncomfortable accompanying a friend to
the progressive Christian Trinity Grace Church—I was the only one there who
didn’t know the words to the songs or that it was customary to applaud after
every song and speaker—but, as the service proceeded, I was struck by some
similarities with Jewish services. In one song the word “holy” was sung three
times in succession, reminding me of our Kedushah prayer, in which
kadosh, meaning holy, is sung three times in succession. Also, many
churchgoers held their hands above their heads while they sang to feel closer to
God. Similarly, Jews traditionally draw nearer to God by rising onto our tiptoes
three times while saying each kadosh.
Engage in dialogue, not monologue. When I ask my non-Jewish friends
about their religions while explaining my own, I’m no longer in lecture mode;
I’m taking away as much knowledge as they are. In addition, through dialogue
I’ve discovered which Jewish topics interest my non-Jewish friends and what I
find interesting about their religious traditions. My friends aren’t interested
in knowing the Shabbat brachot (blessings) any more than I want to learn
the Latin words used in a Catholic mass. They enjoy learning about Jewish
holidays and customs, especially when the traditions involve food. And all of us
like to compare and contrast our faiths in order to discover shared traditions.
Do not pretend to be omniscient.We are not expected to know every
detail about Judaism. It’s perfectly okay to say, “I will have to get back to
you on that” and then research the question. As some information on the Internet
is not accurate, a better option may be to ask your rabbi or a knowledgeable
person at Hillel.
Having a diverse group of friends has taught me much about their
religions—and my own.
—Elanna Seid, senior, New York University, and member of Temple B’nai Or
in Morristown, New Jersey