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Campus Life 203: Becoming a More Mature Jew
by Scott Aaron

Imagine needing an operation. You are wheeled into the operating room and just as the staff is about to start the anesthesia, you nervously ask the doctor where he did his surgical training. “Mr. Siegel’s seventh grade biology class,” he replies. As you drift off, you hear, “Don’t worry—I got an A in frog dissection. What else would I need to know?”

You wouldn’t consider a surgeon with only a middle school knowledge of biology competent to perform your operation; you’d expect him to have advanced medical training. Yet, too often, our understanding of our faith stays frozen in time from when we were kids.

Your Jewish belief system needs to grow as you do. College is the best time to become a more mature Jew.

To begin, expand your Jewish horizons within and beyond the denomination or synagogue you were raised in. Even the traditions of your home synagogue represent only part of what the entire denomination offers. And personal experiences may be misleading. An unhappy religious school experience doesn’t mean that the whole movement, or Judaism, has nothing to offer you. Similarly, a positive relationship with your Reform rabbi doesn’t mean you wouldn’t get a lot out of a Conservative, Reconstructionist, or even Orthodox worship service.

Colleges pride themselves on being marketplaces of ideas. In Jewish terms, this is a great opportunity to explore the wide variety of Jewish philosophies, practices, and beliefs. You can take Jewish studies classes, join Hillel and other campus programs, “hop” between synagogues and minyanim (prayer groups), and/or study in Israel for college credit. To gain multiple perspectives, ask a variety of rabbis—your Hillel rabbi, your hometown rabbi, rabbis in nearby synagogues—about Jewish thought and tradition. A good starter question is, “What do you believe happened at Mount Sinai?” Since some Jews believe that the Torah was given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai and others believe it was written by men inspired by God, you’ll get to the core of the respondent’s belief system—his/her views of God, faith, Jewish history, interpretation of sacred texts, and how Judaism is to be lived today.

Investigate the different Jewish movements too. Look at their websites: (Reform), (Conservative), (Orthodox), (Reconstructionist), and (secular). Sites such as (beliefs, practices, history, and more), (Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life), (Union for Reform Judaism adult learning), and (Torahnet) can deepen your study.

Feel secure in your exploration process, and resist pressure to choose one particular stream of Jewish thought before you’re ready. In time, you will be able to look beyond a particular synagogue’s outer trappings—how much Hebrew is chanted, if musical instruments are used on Shabbat, whether men and women sit together or apart—and discern how each community engages with the world at large. More importantly, you will be able to look beyond an individual Jew’s outer trappings—whether or not he/she keeps kosher or covers the head while praying—and understand why each Jew engages the world as he or she does. When you can do that while being secure in your personal beliefs and practices, you will have become a mature Jew.

—Rabbi Scott Aaron, Community Scholar, Agency for Jewish Learning of Greater Pittsburgh; author, Jewish U: Revised Edition (URJ Press)


Union for Reform Judaism.