As the cliché goes, college is the “time to explore your identity.” You’re supposed to experiment. Step out of your comfort zone. Dare to do something that you’ve never done before.
For most people that I knew in college, this meant switching majors once or four times.
From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to study political science. I’m also a musician, and by minoring in music, I was able to fill up a lot of spare time singing and playing the trombone.
Politics and music – that’s what I’m known for. Sure, there were some slight “adjustments” during my three years in college. I was planning to go to law school, but now I’m pursuing graduate studies in international security policy. I started singing at a Presbyterian church next to campus as part of a music scholarship (I’m sorry to any kvetching rabbis reading this article). I switched from being a proud political independent to being a Republican, even going as far as being the treasurer of my university’s College Republicans organization.
Still, for the most part I’m not much different as a college graduate than my early days as a freshman – at least in matters of majors and hobbies.
My Jewish faith and identity on campus, though, are a bit more complicated.
A bit of background: I had the typical religious upbringing of an American Jewish child in the 21st century. My family didn’t keep kosher, but we celebrated all the major holidays and observed them accordingly (that meant eating
cardboard matzo for Pesach). I went to Hebrew school a couple times a week, attended a number of Shabbat services, then had my bar mitzvah.
It was around this time that my mom was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and she unfortunately passed away shortly before I graduated middle school. My mom was more religious than my dad, so after her death, Judaism faded a bit from my life. The extent of my religion became fasting on Yom Kippur, attending friends’ and relatives’ bar and bat mitzvahs, going to my uncle’s house for a Passover seder, and of course, lighting yahrzeit candles.
This continued for five years, until I was a sophomore in college. I had no intent at the time of getting “in touch” with my Judaism, but that changed when I was invited to a Friday night service at my campus Chabad chapter.
At first, I felt incredibly awkward and out of place. All the other students were davening at light-speed and bowing and bending, while I stood stiff as a board, reciting the Hebrew at a snail’s pace.
Despite that, something about that service appealed to me. Maybe it was the way the other students were praying – putting their whole minds, bodies, and souls into the words. They chose to be here of their own accord; they weren’t just going through the motions to please their parents so they could go home and play Xbox!
Maybe it was the rabbi’s hospitality to me, a complete stranger in his home. The idea that Chabad chapters all over the world serve as a home for sojourning Jews really made me feel like part of a larger, Jewish community.
Maybe it was the dinner after the service (I can’t stress how important free food is to college students). The meal added to the general sense of a warm, welcome environment.
Whatever it was, I left that service feeling more spiritually fulfilled. I ended up going to a good number of Chabad services over the next two years, including on Yom Kippur and Pesach.
On top of my schoolwork, music groups, internships, and social life, I now had the urge to become better connected to my faith. Luckily, the perfect opportunity presented itself in the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. Taught by the modern Orthodox group MEOR, this program provided me with a semester of in-depth Jewish study one night a week.
The summer after the fellowship, I went to Israel for the first time on a Birthright trip with my campus Hillel chapter. I had always wanted to go just for the sake of traveling. However, as my reconnection to Judaism grew deeper, I had a desire to see the beautiful Eretz Yisrael with my own two eyes; to hear the prayers of my people at the Kotel; to walk through the deserts, mountains, and forests that my ancestors once did millennia ago. Regardless of your religion or politics, try to visit Israel at least once in your life if you have the means.
While my experiences during college certainly made me more interested in, and aware of, my Jewish identity, I can’t say those experiences led to a change in my level of observance. I’m not planning to abandon bacon and shrimp, nor wear a kippah outside of synagogue.
However, I will try to attend more Shabbat services, go to shul on the holidays, and continue to study the intricacies of our incredible, unique faith. I might not be the most halachichally observant Jew, but I can still practice and express my faith in the way that I am most comfortable with.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous words in Judaism are l’dor vador; from generation to generation. From the Kedushah prayer, these words tell us that HaShem will reign forever – l’dor vador. These words also serve as a call for us to pass down our traditions and teachings to our children, so that our faith will continue unbroken – l’dor vador.
This is the mitzvah that my mother performed by encouraging my sister and I to have a meaningful, Jewish upbringing. While illness took my mom from this world at a tragically young age, I will continue that mitzvah where she left off. Thanks to the Jewish experiences I had on campus, I will make sure I play my part in fulfilling the meaning of l’dor v’dor.