To remain Jewish, segregate?

Diversity is one of those buzzwords colleges love to brag about in brochures and on tours. So I was pretty excited about attending Cornell University, which I had been told was “the most diverse Ivy League college.” As a high school senior, I dreamed about the time when group of friends would resemble the characters of a Disney channel show, one of each race and religion.  Four years later, however, that dream hadn’t  come true.

I remember an incident during my freshman year of college, which was the start of the chipping away of the illusion of diversity that I had been fed in rose-colored college brochures. I was walking on campus with a group of friends when we walked by one of the program houses catering to minority groups.

As we walked by the house, someone made a remark likening the house to segregation. Another person asked why someone would choose to attend a diverse school such as Cornell but then only make friends with people of his or her background. Nothing extremely hostile was said, however, there was a sense of unusual curiosity bordering on disdain. Those houses, it was decided, were an anomaly in the otherwise functioning and diverse college environment.

I didn’t think much about the program houses until two years later, when I moved into the Jewish house on campus. I initially moved into the house because of convenience, but the more I spent time there, the more friends I made. The next couple of semesters I became very involved with Jewish life on campus, and in addition to living in the house, I joined a Jewish acapella group and one of the minyanim on campus.

Being involved in this new community did more than replace previous communities I had been a part of. It wasn’t just that I was hanging out with people who happened to be Jewish. It was a conscious choice and that choice led to some changes in my own identity. While previously my Jewish identity had been quite static and defined in contrast to the other religions I encountered in my group of friends, it was now being defined in relation to a community of students who thought about their religious identity in many different ways.

My conversations about Judaism did no longer consisted of explaining Hanukkah to my non-Jewish friends, but rather delved into much deeper issues of religious identification, practice and the reasons for those. These conversations forced me to think about my Jewish identity on a daily basis and encouraged me to seek out answers to questions that had been lingering in the back of my mind for a while. For example, this summer I decided to study Torah at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem rather than do another unpaid internship.

While I feel very satisfied as I look back at my college experience, I also wonder what my freshman self would think of my involvement in the Jewish community. In a sense I feel that somehow I have let down some American ideal of diversity.

I think my issue at college speaks to a larger issue in Jewish life in the diaspora. For Jews living outside of Israel there is a constant pull between the Jewish identity and the identity corresponding to one’s country. In America, a constant cause for concern within the Jewish community is that of intermarriage and the effects it will have on future generations of Jews.

The rhetoric often used is that the only way parents can guarantee that their children and grandchildren will remain Jewish is by sending them to Jewish day schools and Jewish camps, by consistently going to synagogue and by moving to neighborhoods with large or majority Jewish populations. These methods are all ways of separating ourselves from the larger American community. This lifestyle puts up a barrier between Jews and the larger American community and ensures that children will feel more at home in Jewish communities than in non-Jewish ones.

This might not sound too bad, but would we feel the same if we heard about Christian parents purposely choosing to live in mostly or all-Christian neighborhoods? Similarly, would and do we criticize recent Latino immigrants for not assimilating by choosing to live in ethnic enclaves?

It is harder to be critical of your own community than another community. While I felt an initial aversion to ethnically homogenous communities at college it took me a long time to think that others might feel the same about the community I became a part of. And only now that I am a part of this community can I better sympathize with and understand other similar communities. I feel happy in my Jewish community and know that I will be graduating college with a much more solid Jewish identity than I would have had I not been part of it. At the same time, I grapple with the fact that I would have felt quite differently not such a long time ago.

About the Author
Josefin Dolsten currently lives in Jerusalem, where she is pursuing an MA in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies from Hebrew University. Previously she studied Government and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. She enjoys writing about religion and politics.