IT’S MESSIER THAN YOU THINK
Surveys like the Forward’s presume that the mere presence of Jewish organizations can provide a stable environment for Jewish students, but fail to recognize the diversity and complexity of the community itself. Jewish organizations are already well established in many schools, but they often do not come across as welcoming all Jewish students, especially those questioning their religious identities.
Social alienation in the face of a perceived exclusivity seems to be a common experience, especially at established Hillels and other organizations already set in their ways. Anya Konstantinovsky, a rising sophomore at Barnard College, said that at Columbia, “There don’t seem to be any discussions, any forums, or any anything for people looking to just learn or to talk about their Jewish identity.” She said, “As someone who has struggled with accepting and now being proud of my Jewish identity, I feel like I have no place in the overall Jewish discussion,” and added that “the [Forward] survey…excludes the notion of Jews who are exploring or beginning to explore their Jewish identity.”
Others echoed her sentiments, citing spaces that fostered their philosophical development in Judaism as the most vital (when they existed) or critically lacking (when they did not) components of their college religious experience. College is a time of figuring out where you fall in the midst of a variety of different viewpoints, and although organizations can provide important support systems, the chance to explore and interrogate faith and its implications is an aspect of religious life often absent on campus.
Many students, even those who feel set in their faith, have trouble finding a place amidst Jewish communities on campus. Deena Zucker, also at Barnard, said that “As someone coming from a small hometown with very few Jews but a very close Jewish community, I was very excited about being surrounded by so many Jewish people.” What she found, though, was that she often felt out of place at the large Shabbat dinners at Hillel. “Cliques of students had already formed, mostly the students who were more religious than I was, and no one would talk to me,” she said, noting that in the following weeks people were friendlier to her, though sometimes their efforts felt more like marketing. “Something that I perceived was a disconnect between sects of Judaism; being Conservative, I sometimes felt out of place in Orthodox or Reform circles,” she said.
WHERE DO WE BELONG?
I grew up in an active Jewish community that I felt somewhat removed from, in a household that went through the motions of being Jewish but rarely discussed faith. In college, although I have become a lot more spiritual, my lack of concrete knowledge about Judaism made me hesitant to join in with Jewish groups.
Instead, most of my religious experience in college has been defined by a process of becoming more open-minded about faith through discussions I had and classes I have taken. Courses like “Critical Approaches” and even “Postmodernism” undid my belief in set truths and falsehoods. In particular, I remember a series of conversations with a friend that led me to see things in a new way, and over the course of many discussions about philosophy and the Kabbalah my friend had studied long ago—I managed to find a loophole in my skepticism through which I could believe in God.
During my time as a bit of a spiritual vagabond, I found solace in interactions with people who were also exploring faith in its various iterations. Conversations about God on dorm room kitchen floors at midnight became ephemeral synagogues where I could relate with others about how lost we were. Slowly I found myself more and more drawn to the interior world of the Jewish faith.
When I began to become more open-minded about God, I started to see things in different ways. When I listened to religious music I felt a kind of reverence I never had before. I found myself thinking of old songs I’d heard in Hebrew school when I was little, and they felt more powerful when I was able to look at them through a lens of genuine faith.
I grew up around strong Jewish women and now, halfway through my college experience, I want to start integrating Judaism into my everyday life through groups on campus. But I worry I won’t fit. Other students told me about similar feelings of half-belonging, half-not. A recent graduate of a small liberal arts college, Tay Weiss (not their real name) told me that although they identify as Jewish, they were not raised as very Jewish aside from the occasional Passover dinner. In college, their Jewish identity often took a backseat to the pressing concerns of being a queer trans person. Still, a more philosophical approach allowed them to tap into a new understanding of what it means to be Jewish. “In an attempt to better understand Judaism, I did take a literature/religion class on the Jewish Bible,” said Weiss, a class that was “one of the best” they had ever taken, allowing them to “begin to understand Judaism on a historical and literary level.” Weiss also mentioned that the Forward survey felt limited in its options, excluding large numbers of people whose Jewish college experiences are not defined by social groups.
Many students do not find the transition from high school to collegiate religious life easy. My old friend Claudia Greenspan, always one of the most passionately Jewish people I knew growing up, told me that “at Cornell…the only students very involved in Jewish life are those who were involved in high school.” She added, “It feels sort of hard to break in, because you feel like you don’t know enough.”
At Case Western Reserve University, where Greenspan attended for a year before transferring, the Jewish community was much smaller. “The only way you’d know of their existence is by joining a Jewish organization,” she said. The pendulum swings from one side to the other; as Jewish college students, we sometimes feel that we are too observant or not observant enough; some of us are overwhelmed by the size and intensity of the community while other are alienated by a lack of support. Greenspan also noted that Cornell, despite the prominence of Jews in the student body, still fails to honor Jewish holidays. “Professors will assign work when we’re supposed to be fasting, or they won’t move tests if we have to go to a service,” she said.
Sandy Gooen, a rising junior at Barnard, also found the Forward survey well-intentioned, but said that Jewish college students often have a lot more on their plates than the question presumes––under-discussed issues like the different experiences of Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi students. Identifying at the crossroads of different identities and viewpoints can make participating in Jewish student groups more difficult, and these differences among Jews of different backgrounds are masked by a shadowy silence.
Even from a vantage point on the outskirts of the Jewish community, the Israel/Palestine debate is impossible to avoid. Tay Weiss said that during their college experience, they encountered “a lot of students equating Jewishness (without apology or clarification) with Zionism, and categorizing Zionists or Israelis as terrorists towards Palestinians.” Oftentimes, Jewish students fall all across the spectrum in their viewpoints about this, a diversity of opinion not always acknowledged or understood.
Many students find themselves caught between faith and other identities as they navigate the conflict. A previous post on the Lilith blog (“How It Feels When Hillel Kicks Your Student Group Out”) told the story of a student named Elaine Cleary, who was part of the group B’nai Keshet. This group was asked to leave Ohio State University Hillel for participating in an LGBTQ+ fundraiser with 15 other student groups, one of which was an organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, that supports the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The pain of being caught between two groups—in this case, Hillel and a queer Jewish community—is an example of the tensions that can stem from incongruent identities.
Like Cleary, recent Wellesley graduate Lena Shapiro also found herself caught up at a crossroads of identity during her time in college. She was involved with Hillel her first year, but following Operation Protective Edge, her views on Israel/Palestine began to change, and she ended up leaving Hillel after a Rosh Hashanah service that focused on why Jewish people had the sole claim to Israel. Soon afterwards, she joined Students for Justice in Palestine, and co-founded the Jewish Voice for Peace in her senior year. “I think that there’s a common narrative that Jewish students are alienated by pro-Palestine activism on campus. I feel the opposite,” she wrote in an email. “To me, it is alienating that so many articles (such as the Forward’s) suggest that a college campus isn’t a good place for Jewish students because there’s discourse around Israel/Palestine, BDS, and similar issues. Of course these debates and conversations are important for us to have—so we can better engage with the world, so we can know more, so we can figure out our own values, so we can act on them. A campus that smothered those conversations out of misguided concern for Jewish students would be doing me, Jewish students like me, and all of us a disservice. That narrative also suggests that Jewish students have one, unified opinion on Israel/Palestine and there’s no room for dissent. So it not only feels alienating, but it also makes me feel invisible.”
Dissent and discussion can be meaningful and productive—when held in certain environments. “I try to steer away from campus discourse as much as I can,” said Deena Zucker. “I am scared off by the intensity of feelings students on this campus have in particular. In my time at Barnard, I can count two very good discussions I have had about the [Israel/Palestine] conflict, and neither was in spaces designated for such. They were with some of my friends, all of whom were Jewish, but who had a large range of political views. These discussions happened organically, and they were some of the most honest insightful and respectful political discussions I have ever heard.”
Anya Konstantinovsky mentioned similar feelings, stating that the isolation and fear she experienced during “apartheid week” on campus led her to seek out a group of Jews not affiliated with Columbia. I too stayed far away from the intensity and force of the conflict, which blistered across the campus and culminated in an apartheid week hosted by the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine. Magazines like Lilith and conversations that came naturally and involved more listening than speaking provided solace for me during this period and beyond. Things can be difficult for students not involved with JVP and similar organizations, for stereotypes and judgments that are made without listening to and attempting to understand other perspectives are never productive.
Anti-Semitism is an underlying darkness that places undue tensions on Jewish college students, no matter what their political views are, making explorations of faith and religious identification more difficult than they ever should be. A 2015 study led jointly by Trinity College and Brandeis University revealed that more than half of 1,157 college students surveyed at 55 universities stated that they had experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism during that academic year.
So the question “What makes a college perfect for the Jewish student?” felt removed from the reality I know, especially in light of these statistics, the responses I heard, and my own experience. The question suggests that a Jewish college student’s experience might be defined solely by the presence of groups and organizations, and ignores the deeper nuances.
Personally, I found myself more drawn to Judaism in college because of its strength, because of its ancient roots and philosophy, and because of the openness of people I learned from who saw it as a melody, a constantly shifting entity that cannot be pinned down. My experience has not thus far been defined by the presence of religious organizations. I was drawn to faith by people who acknowledged the complexity of identity, the pains of growing up and being human, and the wild, disparate convergences of experiences and history that have led us to this moment and are catapulting us into the future.
Not all of us share the same beliefs or values, but exploring the inevitable fracturing of identities seems to be a uniting force. Maybe it’s not religious practice but the interrogation of faith itself that unites Jewish women and defines our experiences. Like Lilith, who chose to abandon the Garden of Eden when she could not Adam’s equal, not all of us were written into the original text, and not all of us subscribe to preordained narratives, but we can find common ground in our shared journey by raising our voices and telling our stories.
Jewish college students, whether Orthodox or questioning the foundations of every religious tenet (or both), have to go about creating themselves, as Jewish women always have, in the rich and liminal space of constant becoming. Judging by the common threads among ideas expressed by students I asked about the Forward’s survey, being lost and feeling ostracized from many different sides is a common experience. Like Lilith, many Jewish college students have left the realm of safety and convention for a brave and terrifying new world—but was it ever safe in those places where we could not speak our truths and challenge convention?
Eden Arielle Gordon is a student at Barnard College in NYC and a current Lilith intern.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.