Keeping the faith

By Mike Fox

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Most people quit Jewish religious (Hebrew) school after their Bar Mitzvah, a typical Jewish rite of passage marked by reading Torah at a service and kicking your friends’ asses at games conducted by overpriced DJs. However, I stayed in Hebrew school for six years after that. I attended what my synagogue called “Hebrew High School.” In an attempt to mimic the idea in traditional high school of having more control over your academic pursuits, we had one class assigned about a relevant theme to our age and one class we could choose. I chose a class that analyzed the Torah with my Rabbi. I went to Hebrew High School for two hours every Wednesday.

Among Hebrew High School, attending Jewish overnight camp on and off, and being a semi-active participant in a Jewish youth organization, I would say that my level of Jewish cultural awareness is fairly high. Granted, I didn’t keep kosher or attend weekly services, but I knew what Judaism looked like, and I knew how to keep it relevant in my life.

However, once I got to college, I lost most of these structures of Jewish culture that I previously took for granted. The weekly Hebrew High School sessions weren’t a mandatory part of my academics. The social function that the Jewish Youth organization fulfilled was taken up by Greek life, countless Registered Student Organizations, and my closely-knit freshman floor. Simply put, I didn’t need the things that I previously relied on Judaism for, such as deep scholarly rigor and bonding experiences with peers.

The summer between freshman and sophomore years, I returned to my summer camp after a long hiatus to become a counselor. When the religious educator was looking for someone to help run the weekly mandatory services, I stepped up. I didn’t know what it was. I never really felt this deep connection to the religious aspects of Judaism, nor did I feel some deep spiritual hole in my life. However, I took up the responsibility and helped out with routine functions of conducting services, but more excitingly, I had an opportunity to critically analyze the week’s reading of the Torah and deliver a sermon. Even more fulfilling, some campers started to ask me to help them write sermons. What was once the domain of people that campers perceived to be “wiser” was now accessible to anyone. I was able to break the ice and show that anyone could deliver a well thoughtout sermon.

Despite this new awakening of sorts, I returned my sophomore year and still failed to seek out Jewish culture. I returned to my commitments of previous years, and showed up only for the most important holidays: the New Year and the Day of Repentance (conveniently ten days apart from each other). Yet again, I couldn’t find what purpose making time for Jewish culture in my college routine would serve.

The answer finally came when I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires last fall. Soon after I started to become distanced from my American friends, on a whim I accepted an invitation to start participating in intercultural activities with Argentine Jews my age. This was run through an organization called Hillel, which operates cultural and religious programs for Jews my age all over the world. The campus had a particularly dynamic Hillel organization.

Interacting with the Argentine Jews, I saw how much they held onto every Jewish custom that they could. It was inspiring to see how their faith gave them an identity in a country that was not always hospitable to them.

Additionally, I started to see what prayer could bring to people. Personally, I think the idea of being able to ask a higher power for grace and fortune in one’s life is a difficult concept to accept. However, when surrounded by those that you care about, in settings that allow you to reflect and feel a connection to those around you, you can see the true meaning in prayer.

Despite my renewed faith, I found myself unwilling to go with my mom last weekend to services at my grandparents’ synagogue for one of the High Holidays. I asked my mom why she went every year. What did she get out of it?

She said she enjoyed hearing the familiar songs and the routine of the service. It was a constant every year of her life to go to this synagogue. I don’t blame her that this affinity for services at that particular synagogue has been built into her..Despite my visits to it for the first 18 years of my life, it’s not a place to which I feel a connection.

To find spirituality appropriate to one’s life, it is necessary to understand why a practice is followed. If one is just following rules blindly out of a sense of obligation, one is missing what spirituality can truly bring. I don’t normally consider myself that spiritual, but once I found prayer appropriate in my life, it became obvious to me that it wasn’t about my relationship with a higher power, but to those around me.

Mike Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]