As many of my peers unpack their move-in boxes to their university dorms and peruse the array of course options on their university’s enrollment website, I would like to share an idea that I have developed over my two years in university.
Psychology dictates that with different people and in different situations, we play different roles. Or more acutely, we are all leading actors in our drama (perhaps a romantic comedy) we call life. In a business meeting, we are well dressed and mannerly; in synagogue, we are meditative, repentant, and (hopefully) joyful; in university we are youthful and intrigued. Yet here in university I always remember my constant dramatic role: Jew.
Being born a Jew is the greatest gift a person can receive. The Jewish life is one filled with meaning, servitude, and quality. But as citizens of the U.S.A., we are naturally subject to our surroundings. Western society’s realities are alluring: its materialism, and for those more sophisticated, its ideology. Western ideology has provided the world with so much good in terms of sensitivities to the less fortunate and equal protection for all citizens. But we mustn’t let it trump our religious commitments.
In fact, it doesn’t pay to sacrifice our Judaism for the other. I myself have witnessed that non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by their Judaism, and are respectful of Jews who respect their Judaism. Think of the kid in your high school who always followed around the cool kids. No, he was never cool enough to be an accepted and legitimate cool kid but his burning desire was to be one. And so, he followed the coolest kids everywhere: to the lunch table, classes, and even after school activities. Yet as an outsider, you knew this kid relinquished his authentic self in hopes of becoming someone he wasn’t and never would be. Perhaps, much like me, you were saddened by the loss of time this kid would’ve had to develop his true and inner self. We Jews can be that kid. We can be the child who is not cool enough to be ‘in’ with the coolest kids, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that camouflaging ourselves will make us accepted; if we coax ourselves into this illusion, we will just lose valuable time learning about our religion and ourselves. Similarly, when an Orthodox Jew relinquishes his principles to fit it and be one with the secular society around him, non-Jews will look upon him with disdain and disappointment. Real acceptance comes when we accept and embrace ourselves—our Jewish selves.
But a convincing elevator pitch for a Torah Jewish life in university cannot be motivated by fearful, assimilationist tactics. Lehefech. Loving and living a Torah life is spurred by the very essence of the human experience: that ultimate joy comes when we share our treasures with others. As each one of us love our Torah lives in our own way, we cannot and should not help but share this beauty with those around us.
And so, here is my Jewish pitch:
A Jewish life is one of meaning. Where our jobs, friendships, and educations are infused with an impassioned purpose. To go through the ropes of life without motivation is feeble and lacking. Service of God is the greatest and most important act one can do in life. The God who infused you with life, a soul, and your family simply asks for a relationship back with him; his extended hand is asking for a hand back. He peers down from his mighty throne cupping his hand around our cheek calling for us to love him. He knows he is not complete without hearing from us, from you. Each day he asks us to find him in the nook and crannies of life– to call to him when a green light gets us to our class just in time, or when a family member passes away. He wants us, and we should want him. When we can realize this emotive apex, when we cannot help but yell out in euphoria to our Father in heaven, life’s ultimate purpose will be lived. To be Jewish means to have a deep and meaningful relationship with God, which can be achieved through His will as expressed in the Laws of the Torah.
Being an Orthodox Jew on campus is to me, a holy endeavor. In university, I can study the multiple facets and expressions of God in the humanities and sciences. Here I can converse with an Egyptian Muslim about the Arab Spring and make friends with a Ugandan exchange student. Here can I study God’s greatest creation, man, and meet different types of men, too. The present of a university education my parents gifted to me is one that I treasure and try to take advantage of everyday. The university study hall is second holiest only to the beit midrash. Just because we become university students does not mean we stop being Jews. On the contrary: being a university student enhances our Judaism and adds to our avodat hashem; one cannot be complete without the other.
My message to my freshman university friends (and upper classmen too) is this: ask yourself if you feel you are desiring to become more similar to the world around you than to your inherent community. If the answer is no but you still feel conflicted, then continue to grow towards Judaism on that journey. But if the answer is yes, ask yourself why. If it is because you are apathetic to your Judaism and it isn’t attractive to you anymore, then be open to learning. Learn more about Judaism both in primary sources and in opinion pieces by noted Orthodox scholars and Rabbis. That way, we can continue to infuse our university experiences with an authentic Jewish spirit.