Beth Cousens is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumna and the outgoing Associate Vice President of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. She is a consultant to a variety of Jewish educational organizations, focusing on vision, strategy, and evaluation. Beth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of us are deep in our Jewish educations. We have participated in a program of the Wexner Foundation, an organization that prizes Jewish literacy. We have become hungry for more Jewish knowledge and involvement, and so we have taught ourselves to be active Jewish learners, seeking teachers and books and websites. We have made decisions about the Jewish education of our children, clarifying our values around Jewish practice as we did so.
Some share our journey, but many more do not. We have precious capital in our Jewish literacy and Jewish self-confidence. How do we help create these for others?
I once interviewed an accomplished philanthropist, chair of countless committees and financial supporter of many creative Jewish educational programs. As she told the story, once on a holiday afternoon, she took a walk through her community. She wandered into synagogue services and picked up a book. As she remembered it, the leader turned her book right side up, then closed it and gave her the right book. She said, “I had picked up something else and needed what I now know is a mahzor. I knew nada! Nothing!” Ritual for her was a “secret society.” She was the “curtain puller” in synagogue “but never the Torah reader.*
Judaism is complicated. It often happens in a language that most of us don’t read easily or speak fluently. The religion itself seems like a foreign language. Prayer appears a jumble of standing, sitting, chanting and mumbling. Text study seems a series of esoteric paragraphs pulled without apparent reason from the middle of lengthy volumes printed in strange letters, with teachers inserting words like “chazal” (the rabbis) and “b’diavad” (post facto) without hesitation. And Jewish ideas of God, memory, the afterlife, membership – ask about Judaism’s stance on any of these and one hardly gets a straightforward answer.
What I want to say – what I want to stand on the rooftops and shout – is that this is all of us. Competent and skilled in the rest of our lives, we become children in Jewish spaces, ashamed and sometimes afraid of what we don’t know. We are anxious leading Jewish rituals or answering Jewish questions. We feel that we do not meet an indefinable and intangible meter that measures Jewish adequacy. As a result, we avoid the Jewish communities that are our own because we feel fundamentally uncomfortable in our own Jewish skin.
This is all of us. This is our teacher who seems so knowledgeable, our prayer leader who sings with passion. Those who seem to know it all – we had to work to get there. We once felt confused, and isolated. So we studied, we started asking questions, and reading, and putting ourselves in situations that made us a bit uncomfortable and confused. We also made a decision – we might not know anymore than we once did, but we weren’t going to let ourselves be intimidated anymore by how much there is to learn. We were going to celebrate the exploration itself.
A once-Hillel professional describes this process of exploration and confidence-building – and the extent to which Hillel was the perfect setting for her exploration – here. Indeed, Hillel is a place where students should feel free to open themselves up, the Jewish equivalent to the university, where we are all equals, where we are open to taking classes at the 101 level, and where we become who we will be in the world. It is exactly the safe space to try new topics, to admit ignorance, and to investigate new ways of being.
Many of us have been in such places of inquiry and safety, and many of us have made the journey described here, from confusion to determination. Hillel can be such a place – and where are the others? Can our Shabbat tables be places of confession, challenge, while feeling safe? How do we help someone be open to such a journey, to, let go of their fear that they will be made to feel foolish in their questioning? Most significantly, how do we ensure that we never make someone feel foolish, feel outside of their Jewish skin, feel illegitimate in their identity?
I propose the following as questions of Jewish adulthood, of ownership and struggle. May we enjoy contemplating these questions for ourselves, and may we only add to this list!
– Why is Judaism, Jewish tradition, Jewish life important to us? What role does it play in our world? What role do we want it to play in our world?
– Why do we do Jewish volunteer or professional work? What do we hope to accomplish in our work?
– What kind of Jewish life do we want to live? Now, and in our future?
– What questions about Jewish life and tradition do we have? What do we struggle with?
How will we actively explore these questions, alongside our students, our children, and our communities?