How to be socially Jewish

Stony Brook University. | By Josephng1 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“What do you mean, you’re not allowed to have bacon?” 

“If you go to public school, how do you have time to daven every morning?” 

“So, you don’t believe in Jesus?”

“You never learned to speak Hebrew?”

It seems unlikely that every one of these questions — expressions of bewilderment about Judaism, and confusion about living in the secular world — could be directed to the same person, but as a child, I was asked every one of them.

I grew up straddling the line between secular and strictly religious. I kept kosher and observed Shabbat while attending a public school with few Jewish students. In order to provide me with a more traditionally religious experience outside the home, my parents enrolled me in a strictly Orthodox summer camp that I attended for years. Though I loved and valued both environments, the experience of switching from school to camp, from a secular environment to a frum one, constituted such a pole reversal that it nearly gave me whiplash. And in both places, I was the odd one out: I was known to be the most religious student in school, and the most assimilated kid in camp. My circumstances earned the intrigue of my peers from both sides.

Was this a problem? Is it now? No. Overwhelmingly, the people I meet are incredibly understanding, and I’m more than happy to explain my situation to anyone curious. On both sides of the aisle, I’ve been fortunate to have had wonderful friends, and while my Jewishness (or lack of Jewishness, as some saw it) sometimes constituted an oddity, it never kept me from being close to the people around me. At the same time, though, my inability to fit neatly into a single category of observance (I grew up “Conservadox,” a term many believed was made-up) kept me from finding peers who could relate to my experiences.

Fast-forward to my orientation weekend at Long Island’s Stony Brook University, a massive suburban college with a fairly small Jewish community. As part of the awkward new-student introductions, I started talking to the other students at our campus Chabad’s first semester event, expecting most to be unaffiliated and secular.

I couldn’t have been further from the truth. I met people from non-religious backgrounds and ones from frum households. But when I struck up a conversation with two unfamiliar faces, both with stories and religious habits that mirrored mine exactly, I knew I’d found a true community of peers. Meeting people like me made me feel more secure in my religiousness than ever before.

In my first year at SBU, I was amazed to find not only students who were Jewish, but ones who were motivated to participate in and cultivate Jewish programming, events, and connections on campus. These students come from all walks of religious life, from completely secular and previously unaffiliated Jews to former yeshiva kids who strictly observe mitzvot every day. In this community, I don’t have to give lengthy explanations about my religiousness or be the token member of either side. I exist as a dot on the spectrum of Jewish affiliation, instead of inhabiting one of two distant poles.

Perhaps the most important and surprising part of SBU’s Jewish community is its eagerness to not only accept religious and cultural pluralism, but even to embrace it. Both major campus organizations, Chabad and Hillel, are filled with students from all Jewish backgrounds and levels of observance. These groups, as well as others, provide learning opportunities, Israel experience programs, and religious and cultural events to every interested Jewish student, no matter their theology. The emphasis on coexistence within the Jewish world and inclusion of different perspectives has made me feel more at home Jewishly on campus than anywhere else I’ve been.

In 18 years and in plenty of different cultural communities, I never experienced the same connection to the social side of Jewish life that I have on campus. Our community may be small, but the passion of its members helps me feel the sense of belonging and familiarity I’ve always wanted.

 

Rachel Chabin is a student at Stony Brook University.

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