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Campus Life 200: The Accidental Jewish Ambassador
by Elanna Seid

When 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 blessings.

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


Union for Reform Judaism.