Growing up in Boca Raton, Fla., I received a public-school education that encompassed a very narrow understanding of what it meant to be Jewish. My Judaism was comprised of Friday night family dinners, collecting treats from the “candy man” at shul on Shabbat, and attending both Sunday school and summer camp. Most of my friends weren’t Jewish, spent their Friday nights playing Xbox and could not fathom the concept of kashrut. I was an American Jew, but could anyone guarantee that my children would also be?
In 2005, my parents took fate into their own hands and made Aliyah to Israel. Being 10 at the time, I was ecstatic. The idea of moving houses seemed so cool that I never fully processed the thought of leaving my friends and departing to a new country. Looking back, the magnitude of their decision was incomprehensible.
As I was approaching the end of my military service, I started forming the idea of returning to the United States. I didn’t exactly miss living in America; after all, the amount of independence I had as a fifth- grader in Israel well exceeded most American high schoolers. But I did feel like my national service would be left incomplete without closing a personal circle. I felt that because I was privileged with the gift of moving to Israel, it was my responsibility to eventually return and share my experiences with a society that I naturally connect to and, in an alternative reality, would have been a part of. This idea quickly came to fruition when I assumed the position of Jewish student life coordinator at the Lester & Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center at Michigan State University in December 2018.
As this exciting news settled in, I surprisingly found myself struggling with the title Jewish student life coordinator. Why Jewish? Why not just student life coordinator? After all, isn’t Hillel Jewish by default? Had I joined the Hillel staff at Tel Aviv University, would I have received the same title? I’m not sure.
In Israel, your Judaism is expressed through the essence of your presence. You don’t need to keep kashrut, go to shul on Shabbat, attend summer camp or receive any type of religious education. Rather you could head out to the baseball diamond, attempt to workout using the intimidating beach facilities of Tel Aviv or even just grab a beer at your local JEMS pub and you would still be expressing your Judaism through your presence in Israel. This is because Israel acts as an umbrella Jewish community by default. It is made up of several communities that are Jewish as a result of all their members being Jewish, but not necessarily because they are practicing Judaism. Therefore, by default, these communities are defined as “Jewish” communities.
So, is your presence in a “Jewish” community enough? I believe so, to the point that the event you are attending can have no actual Jewish context, but your communal presence will still express your Judaism. This is because presence alone is a fundamental contribution toward building a thriving community.
An understanding of this concept not only allows Hillel to open its doors to students seeking a Jewish experience but also to Jewish students seeking a community experience beyond religion. As for being a Jewish student life coordinator, I’ve concluded that it is just Jewish by default.