First, I came as a rebel. I’ll be honest: I was a 16-year-old Jewish Atheist Agnostic. I considered myself an iconoclast, smarter than everyone. How could others be so blind that they would give up bacon? Or napping in front of the TV on Saturday afternoons? Or bread for a whole week? After my Bar Mitzvah, my parents decided to let me decide if I wanted to go to shul. Almost every time, I decided that my bed was too warm to leave.
Then, I came as a teenager. The later years of my high school saw a rise in religious attendance: I was dating a girl, and her family went to Kabbalat Shabbat services often. Even though I was reciting the words I’ve known since kindergarten, it was clear that I was not there to pray.
Next, I came as a deserter. I was enraptured by the freedoms of university. At Guelph, sitting in Johnston Hall on that first, sweltering day in late August, I found two and a half Jews on my floor of 40, myself included. This was alien to me: growing up off-Bathurst, I’d look around the classroom and see two and a half non-Jews! I loved this opportunity to experience other cultures. I wanted nothing to do with the established Jewish groups on campus: when Hillel and AEPi had their kickoff event in the middle of campus, I walked around 3 buildings just to avoid them. Even so, when I managed to make a new best friend it was the other Jew on my floor.
After that, I came with coercion. With first semester over, I was home for the holidays. That meant spending time with my high school friend (my high school persona didn’t engender popularity). He had gone to Ottawa and was not as opposed to being Jewish: he had joined AEPi, the International Jewish Fraternity. He’d decided that I was going to, as well, and proceeded to talk my ear off until I agreed to go to a single event and try. A year later, I was running for chapter president, on a platform that was to repair relations with our local Hillel, so we didn’t split attendance. That brought me into direct contact with Hillel’s director, Rabbi Daniel Levitt. It is written in Pirkei Avot, “Acquire for yourself a teacher, and you will find yourself a friend” and I know that it’s true, because it happened to me.
First, I came to him as a client: I have my organization, you have yours. We should work together.
Then I came to him as a friend: his sessions of Jews and Brews, where a number of students would meet him at the campus pub to discuss Jewish issues, often got derailed and turned into just “peers and beers”.
After that, I came as a favour: Hillel had been missing a secretary at their meetings, and since I was filling the same role in AEPi, Rabbi Daniel asked me to fill in. Why not?
Next, I came to him as a challenger: I took an ethics class. Genocide was a topic we discussed. Aside from the usual Jewish perspective on genocide, I started thinking: my Bar Mitzvah portion is Beshallach, and features a battle with Amalek. Afterwards, Moses is instructed to write that God will “Utterly blot out the name of Amalek from under Heaven”. This sounded suspiciously like genocide to my ears. I had trouble reconciling that with Jewish history, and went to Rabbi D to throw down that gauntlet. How can you believe in this after what’s happened to us (repeatedly)? An hour of dialogue later, I understood. Amalek, we decided, was not a race, but the yetzer ha’rah: the inclination, not necessarily to do harm, but to be selfish, lazy, ruthless, and duplicitous, and we must blot out the inclination to do the wrong thing, even for the right reasons. It resonated with me. After all, it was what I’d been taught my entire life. I left thirsting for more.
Then I came to him as a student: I had never learned about Judaism or Jews in a collaborative way, or a way that allowed for questioning. I had never learned what it was like to debate a rabbi and have them concede. I wanted to do it again. We set up weekly sessions. I would open the Tanach, from Bereshit on and read until we found something to argue about. Our hour-long appointments often ballooned to 2. Rabbi Hillel famously said that the whole Torah was to not do unto others as you wouldn’t want done to you, and the rest was commentary. Yet most people forget the suffix: “Now go study.” Study we did.
Then I came to him as a guest: his family hosted Shabbat dinners at their house every week for students and I became a regular. It was always a warm environment, reminding me of my parent’s house, and it was a free hot meal. I started counting him as a friend.
Next, I came as a candidate: Rabbi D let me know that it might be good for Hillel, and me too, if I ran for president. Seeing no other challengers and a void to be filled, I gladly accepted his nomination, and after a hard fought campaign against no one, I won.
Two years later, I left him as a brother: we initiated him into AEPi. More than that, he became my mentor. Someone I could talk to about anything. When I got in trouble, I called my rabbi. When I met a girl, I called my rabbi. When my grandparents died 6 weeks apart, I called my rabbi. When I graduated and got a job with AEPi, and he moved on to another Hillel far away, and we had to part ways, I called my rabbi to cry our goodbyes.
Even now, whenever I need him, I call my rabbi. Not bad for a Jewish Atheist Agnostic.