The Conspiracy

Dear Freshmen, Don’t Fear a Community That Challenges Your Beliefs

Dear freshmen,

Last month, I helped facilitate an info session at Wesleyan University for 70 rising seniors from the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, where I attended elementary school. These students sat before me in the admissions office, looking slightly perplexed about why their Jewish day school had taken them to visit a liberal, off-the-beaten path university, and I could clearly remember standing in their shoes. As a (now graduated) senior at Wesleyan, I had been an active leader in the Wesleyan Jewish community since my freshman year. I explained what Jewish life was like on campus, why I loved being Jewish here, and how the intellectual rigor, varied beliefs, and constant curiosity of our Jewish community members had enriched my connection to Judaism.

I explained… how the intellectual rigor, varied beliefs, and constant curiosity of our Jewish community members had enriched my connection to Judaism.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

The day school students asked a string of nervous questions: “Is Students for Justice in Palestine the biggest group on campus?” “Do students wave Palestinian flags in public?” I sat there in disbelief – because the first questions students asked about Jewish life were not actually about Jewish life but rather about anxiety over encountering different perspectives. These students had been taught that Palestinian activists are their enemies and their job on campus is to elevate a monolithic Zionist agenda above all else. I knew these kids – after all, I was once one of them. I knew that Jewish day schools often taught their students to fear difference. Yet I was still amazed by how clearly this fear shone through these students’ questions.

Two weeks ago, I graduated from Wesleyan. Four years ago, I arrived on campus with ideas about college that most incoming freshmen possess – I wanted to be an English major, I wanted to find better friends than I had in high school, and, as the child of divorced parents, I looked forward to choosing a place that was entirely my own.

“Engage with your peers who have had different Jewish experiences than you.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

Growing up, my Jewish identity was often the one thing I could hold onto during difficult back-and-forths between my parents’ homes and our many moves. I loved Friday nights at camp and adored listening to Jewish music. The rituals that accompanied Jewish holidays helped me feel present and in touch with myself when the world around me was constantly in flux.

When I came to Wesleyan, I did not know what to expect in terms of how I would connect to the Jewish community on campus. I expected to go to Shabbat sometimes and maybe attend some social events. To be honest, I had never thought much about Israel/Palestine before; I had learned a singular, one-note narrative about Judaism and Zionism in Jewish day school and summer camp, which I’d had little opportunity to question.

Quickly, though, I recognized that I needed to rethink much of what I thought I knew about Judaism and Israel/Palestine, as I explored Wesleyan’s pluralistic, open-minded, and welcoming community. During my freshman year, the spring of 2014, the Wesleyan Jewish community declared ourselves an Open Hillel: a community in which Jews from all backgrounds – secular, religious, activist, cultural, and many others – are encouraged to explore their Jewish identities and share them with others, supporting the voices of those often marginalized in Jewish communal spaces.

Within the context of my open Jewish community, I was exposed to Jews who had grown up in socialist youth movements, who had actually visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories, who believed in the success of Israel enough to critique it and believe in its betterment. I chose to dedicate much of my time in college to moving my community beyond Shabbat dinners and social events to encompassing and elevating the diverse perspectives and ideas of its members.

“I was exposed to Jews who… believed in the success of Israel enough to critique it and believe in its betterment.” | [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

During my sophomore year, after a lot of difficult and enlightening discussions, our community held the first of many Jewish Voice for Peace Shabbatot. Jewish Voice for Peace opposes anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, and anti-Arab bigotry and seeks an end to the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. The leaders of JVP that year gave me the courage to confront my Jewish upbringing, to acknowledge its erasure of Palestinian history, to learn more about Israel/Palestine, and to work toward creating more spaces for Jewish students like me to untangle their blinkered Jewish upbringings and find their own truths.

Inspired by my experiences at Wesleyan, in my junior year, I joined the Open Hillel Steering Committee, where I currently serve as Chair. In this position, I have committed to making my own campus and other campuses’ Jewish communities supportive, welcoming, and inclusive of different voices, no matter their beliefs about Israel/Palestine.

Working with Wesleyan’s Open Hillel and Open Hillel nationally, I learned the importance of hearing, and actually listening to, a variety of narratives about Israel/Palestine and Judaism. We need to listen to those we disagree with to help us make our own informed opinions – about matters Jewish and otherwise.

“It must be hard to be Jewish at Wesleyan,” a family friend recently told me. This bothersome stereotype pervades conversations about Jewish students at liberal arts universities – but what my family friend didn’t realize is hearing a range of perspectives about Israel/Palestine is not a hardship. Instead, it is an opportunity. In fact, I am so grateful to have been active in Wesleyan’s Jewish community, for the room it gave me to grow and explore and for the mentors who supported me and allowed me to find my own way.

So, incoming freshmen, I encourage you, please, attend a school with an active Jewish community – or, attend a school where you have the opportunity to build a Jewish community from the ground up. Engage with your peers who have had different Jewish experiences than you.

Rather than living in fear of pro-Palestinian students, attend a Jewish Voice for Peace or Students for Justice in Palestine meeting. Build coalitions and community across political lines.

While grappling with my developing Jewish identity vs. my community as a child, a good friend reminded me, there is an important difference between safety and comfort. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable.

Wesleyan’s Open Hillel reinvigorated and grounded my Jewish identity. I am leaving with an even stronger, more urgent interest in building communities where students of all Jewish backgrounds and perspectives can find their place.

So, freshmen – forget the fear, and instead find a place that both challenges and supports you. After four years, like me, you might have a different experience than you imagined. But I hope that each of you connects to your Jewish community – in a way that is educational, sometimes difficult, and always meaningful.

Sonya Levine is a recent graduate from Wesleyan University.

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