How do you/did you maintain your Jewish identity on campus? Tell us below.
Here I am (front, center) with friends at Yale University.
Adjusting to life in college is not easy. You’re thrust into a world where you’re expected to be an independent being. I remember hugging my family goodbye outside the gate to my quad, waving cheerily as the car drove off, turning to open the door and start my new life—only to discover I had locked myself out.
Coming to terms with one’s Jewish self-definition at college is no easier. I had to shift from my familiar Reform congregation to a Jewish campus community whose most active members were predominantly Conservative and Orthodox. In the beginning I kept wishing for a translator. “He’s frum,” one girl would say, and I’d long to ask, “From where?” Hearing a group of three commit to “learn together” struck me as odd—weren’t we in college to learn every day?—until I found out that the expression meant to “study rabbinic texts.”
Just as in figuring out any new language, immersion worked wonders. The more time I spent with other kinds of Jews, the more fluency I gained in the language of their Judaism. And, I realized, this was a positive way to develop my Jewish self-identity on my own terms. My peers and I were eager to educate and help one another. Within days I was learning from one friend how to properly chant the Ten Commandments in that week’s Torah portion, teaching another basic Hebrew grammar, conversing with a third about the existence of God, and participating in a group discussion about the meaning of commandedness. A Jew was someone who asked serious questions of herself and of the tradition, and my new friends would help me answer them.
Still, I struggled. How was I to explain to Conservative and Orthodox Jews that keeping kosher is integral to my Jewish identity when the way I eat isn’t what they deem kosher, or that I observe Shabbat by calling my parents and drawing in my sketchbook? That goes against their way of being Jewish. How was I to maximize my ability to learn in a traditional Jewish environment without feeling lost in the definitions and rhetoric of others?
I learned that being myself as a Jew required that I bring a measured level of confidence to the table—not so confident that I became complacent about what I should be learning, but confident enough not to defer to the rules and opinions of others. I found this level of self-assurance hard to achieve, but attainable.
It helped that in the Shabbat evening prayer group I attended and sometimes led, I had found a deeply dedicated group of Reform Jews who spoke my language.
It also helped to realize that Reform Jews were not the only ones who sometimes felt marginalized or insecure in their Jewish self-definition. Some of my Orthodox friends feared people would see them as unthinking religious fundamentalists. Some Conservative friends feared for their Movement’s future.
I learned how to add my voice on campus—by speaking in the language of learning and not labels, by seeking understanding rather than stereotyping, and by offering answers as well as a long list of questions.