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:
urj.org (Reform), uscj.org (Conservative),
(Orthodox), jrf.org (Reconstructionist), and secularjudaism.com (secular). Sites such as
myjewishlearning.org (beliefs, practices, history,
and more), hillel.org (Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish
Campus Life), urj.org/learning (Union for Reform Judaism adult
learning), and torahnet.org (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)