During my sophomore year at Tufts University I was registering for classes when I came upon an offering that looked interesting: “Intro to Judaism.”
I had grown up in San Francisco with a typical reform Jewish upbringing. I had attended Hebrew school, gathered with family for Friday Shabbat dinners, and had attended more bar and bat mitzvahs than I could count. Considering myself quite the experienced and learned young Jew, I thought to myself: “Intro to Judaism, now there’s an easy A!”
How wrong I was.
Walking into that first day of class on a dreary Boston winter afternoon, I entered the small meeting room and quickly learned that the class was an eclectic mix of one third Jews, one third Christians, and one third Muslims (a group of Turkish international students had all decided to take the class together).
Over the course of that semester, I came to embrace the saying often attributed to the philosopher Socrates: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing at all.”
What I learned that semester was that my own understanding of Judaism lacked true depth. I knew little about our millennia old history and traditions, the intricate meaning behind our lifecycle events and holidays, or the great scholars who had contributed so much to the rich tapestry of Jewish knowledge and teachings. While exceptionally proud of my Jewish identity, I couldn’t answer the fundamental question of “why be Jewish?” Yes, my parents were Jewish, their parents before them were Jewish, and my own Judaism was simply a fact. But the question remained, in this age of relatively newfound Jewish freedom — where young Jews are not forced to be Jewish but instead have the choice to opt-in — why was being and doing Jewish important?
That semester lit in me a fire to learn more about the collective Jewish story and to go deeper. I declared a second major in Judaic Studies and eventually found my way to the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Summer Community Leadership Program (CLP) in Jerusalem.
CLP is a gathering each summer at the Hartman Institute, nestled in the beautiful Germany Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. The program brings Jewish adults together for a week of intensive text-based study featuring leading international scholars in Talmud, Bible, Jewish philosophy and theology, history, mysticism, and more.
In those first hours at Hartman, what first struck me was seeing Jews of all denominations and geographies who had flown thousands of miles in order to study. These were Jews who were not just interested in study for the sake of being able to impress with their recitation of ancient texts – these were Jews wholeheartedly committed to strengthening their own foundational understanding of our millennia old teachings so that they would be empowered to respond more intelligently to the issues and challenges facing Jews around the world today. To borrow from the Hartman Institute’s own language: “They were bringing Torah to life.”
Like many of my fellow millennial North American Jewish counterparts, I didn’t realize the extent to which I had been craving an immersive Jewish learning experience. I wanted to move beyond my own surface level understandings to get to the root of what it means to be a Jew in today’s world.
Many of my peers identify as Jews and wear their Jewish heritage proudly, but at the same time struggle to answer the fundamental question of why it matters to them personally to be Jewish. We live in a time now where being Jewish is no longer imposed on us by law or by physical isolation. We have the freedom to choose to be part of the Jewish people and to carry on the tradition. Being Jewish is for many a lifestyle choice that must compete within the greater marketplace of identities. My father had Jew stamped into his Soviet passport, but in today’s world, we now have the luxury to be whatever we want, to do whatever we want, and even to marry whoever we want. So with all of this freedom, “Why be Jewish?”
Studying at Hartman has helped me to develop my own answer to that question.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to study at the Hartman Institute over 5 summer sessions and each time I leave feeling both inspired and challenged. This past June, the theme of the Community Leadership Program was “Aspirational Zionism: Revitalizing a Moral Conversation About Israel” – a topic that is certainly at the center of many critical conversations for young Jews around the world today.
The Community Leadership Program helped me to grapple with the big questions of our day and equipped me to be able to respond to the tough questions. It’s a place where I’ve come to understand that we are Jews not because of who we are but because of what we’re called on to be. Judaism provides me the framework to want to do my part to move the world in a better direction.
I hope next year more of my young North American Jewish counterparts will join me at the Hartman CLP program.
To learn more, visit shalomhartman.org/clp.