When I started college last fall, I quickly realized that occasional meals and get-togethers at Hillel were not enough to keep alive the Jewish spark I had nurtured while learning in seminary in Israel. I needed more. I needed not only to include Judaism in my college life, I needed to arrange my college life around my Judaism.
By going to minyan every morning, rather than davening alone in my room, I was able to begin to fill this void. Going to minyan gives me the opportunity to connect with others and to connect with Hashem simultaneously. Going to minyan helps me realize that I am not alone, that I am not the only one struggling to find my place in a new environment.
More than once last year, I looked around at my non-Jewish friends who were able to participate in exciting events on Saturdays and could eat all the food in the cafeteria, not just from the small kosher section in the back. At times, I admit, I felt a little jealous. But then I would take a step back and reflect. I have more to live for than just myself. I am a link in a chain thousands of years older than me. There’s nothing I want more than to be able to be a part of that chain.
Going to minyan every day helps remind me that I am part of that chain, and part of a community that will continue to carry our rich spiritual legacy into the future.
Abby Berk, twenty
Johns Hopkins University
“When I was a teenager, our rebbeim and youth leaders convinced us that the future of Yiddishkeit depended upon us, our learning, our teaching, our modeling and our outreach.” Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU executive vice president, emeritus
Growing up, I would often hear my parents and others in the community discuss the problems facing Orthodoxy. One problem in particular was discussed: the lack of leadership. The spiritual leaders who had rebuilt the Jewish community in America in the aftermath of the Holocaust were either deceased or no longer had the ability to carry the heavy mantle of leadership. The next generation, my parents asserted, was unsuited to carry the mantle that had been set before them.
How could that be? I wondered. There are far more day schools today than have ever existed in the past, as well as more youth organizations and more young men receiving semichah. How it is possible that despite intense anti-Semitism and economic depression that existed for millennia, we as a people managed to produce tremendous spiritual leaders; but today when we have political, social and economic freedom, we are no longer able to do so?
The failing, as I see it, lies not in the quality of the leaders but in the quality of their message. The message touted by modern Jewish leaders does not give young people a true purpose. In Jewish camps and at Jewish youth events and Shabbatons, the message conveyed is that we are there to meet Jews of the opposite sex and ensure that the intermarriage rate falls. In essence, Jewish leadership is telling us that the purpose of modern Judaism is merely to survive. But that really is no purpose at all; every species is programmed to continue the survival of its species.
It is true that the various Jewish youth organizations I participated in also touted Jewish ethics, ideals and social action, but those were always secondary to their overriding goal—preventing intermarriage. Today there is much discussion about the dearth of Jewish leadership, but perhaps we should be discussing the dearth of Jewish purpose first.
Chaim Chernoff, twenty
Johns Hopkins University
It is disturbing to see so many fellow Jews espouse negative views toward Jewish leaders—views that run counter to our faith and to our tradition. Maybe it’s due to the structure of our institutions, which places rabbis and leaders at the center of organizational politics. Maybe it’s due to the few bad apples that have cast aspersions on the good ones. Maybe it’s due to our arrogance, which makes it more difficult to forget that one time the rabbi offended us. Or perhaps it’s due to the fact that we were taught that our leaders have a kind of “papal infallibility,” causing us to feel deeply disillusioned when they make even minor mistakes.
Yet is there a crisis of Jewish leadership? Most certainly not. Our rabbis continue to work tirelessly on behalf of our communities, and it is unfortunate that they are not getting the respect that they deserve. I pray that God will help me educate my children to respect their rabbis and teachers the same way I was taught to respect mine.
Shimon Indig, twenty-seven
Bergenfield, New Jersey
For me, leadership in the Orthodox community elicits mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I love taking on community-oriented responsibilities. I have served as the co-president of the Orthodox group at Harvard for the past two years, and in this role, I’ve been involved in some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. It has been a privilege to organize weekly student-taught shiurim and learn Torah from my friends, provide kosher programming for frum students during Shabbat and the rest of the week, and help my peers navigate halachic observance and find spiritual meaning while living on a secular college campus. Doing this sort of work is my life’s calling, and I would not trade the experiences of these past four semesters for anything.
Having said that, leading as a woman in the Orthodox community can also be exhausting. I recall the time when some Orthodox undergrads expressed frustration about a university policy, so I called a meeting to discuss the issue. Around six or seven guys came to the meeting, making me the only woman at the table. I had another meeting to attend right afterward, so I was eager to get through the discussion material as quickly as possible, but everyone refused to quiet down and pay attention to what I had to say. After I decided to cut my losses and only focus on the attendees seated closest to me, I managed to hold some semblance of a meeting. When I got up to leave, I left my male co-president to facilitate the rest of the meeting. While putting away my laptop and buttoning up my coat, I noticed that he didn’t seem to have a problem getting the guys to listen.
This is just one example of many that I’ve experienced as a woman trying to lead men in the Orthodox community. There are obviously many exceptions to the rule, but it is clear to me that young Orthodox men—even ones who identify as liberal and have progressive ideologies with regard to women’s religious roles—need to learn how to deal with a woman at the helm.
Talia Weisberg, twenty-one
In recent years, it has become popular among young people to search for a more spiritually intense approach to Judaism. Some have turned to the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and other Chassidic rabbis. They look for the hidden meanings of the letters of the Aleph Bet, discuss the sefirot and the upper echelons of the Heavens while playing Shlomo Carlebach or Zusha’s tunes in candlelit rooms. But from a Torah perspective, enjoying a spiritual experience that is not rooted in halachah is worthless.
To illustrate: There is a fairly popular Jewish camping trip that many young people are attracted to. A friend of mine told me what an “amazingly spiritual” experience it was. During Shabbat day, everyone sang zemirot while musical instruments were played in the background. As they listened to the music, they discussed Likutei Maharan by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Some of the participants were remarkably enthusiastic: “Wow!” they said. “This is so beautiful. We love keeping Shabbat.” They reveled in singing Shabbat songs and participating in oneg Shabbat; they wanted the intense good feeling Shabbat brings without being constrained by its restrictions. They insisted that God showers us with love and we just need to grasp that feeling. I believe there is a term for this religious approach—it’s called Christianity. Searching for spirituality is admirable, but let’s not neglect halachah.
Michael Rivlin, twenty-three
What made me—as a single twenty-four-year old—make aliyah from Baltimore three years ago? In Israel, I feel a sense of belonging. I first felt this the year I spent learning in Israel after high school, when my friends and I went to Malcha Mall in Jerusalem. When lunchtime rolled around, we actually ate in the food court—something I had never been able to do back in the States! And while this may seem fairly trivial, to me it was an amazing experience; for the first time, I felt like I belonged.
Once I became an olah, this feeling of belonging only intensified. The excitement for Jewish holidays begins as soon as the previous holiday ends; after enjoying my first Sukkot in Israel as an olah, I was surprised to see jelly donuts in grocery stores and bakeries only a week or so later. Similarly, after Chanukah ended, I began to see advertisements for Purim costumes everywhere.
If I were still living in the United States, I would most likely have to work on Fridays close to Shabbat, and constantly explain why I can’t be around on yom tov or eat what everyone else is eating. In Israel, however, I can be “normal,” like everyone else.
Gila Halpern, twenty-seven
Computer programmer and artist
Beit Shemesh, Israel