Response to “Jews and Others” From Jacob Epstein
Chancellor Eisen notes that in Conservative Judaism, we have tried to strike an incredible balance in maintaining a distinct Jewish identity without alienating ourselves from the rest of society. However, one of the results of the self-segregation that occurs when we try to raise our kids in tight-knit Jewish communities is that we create a social atmosphere virtually absent of non-Jewish influences.
While many Conservative Jews send their children to public schools, they live in areas where Jewish people are a large percentage of the population and they send their children to predominantly Jewish summer camps. When you ask our college students about their social lives, a significant amount will say these are characterized by involvement in Jewish fraternities and sororities and a largely Jewish social circle. Whether it be consciously or subconsciously, many of our committed young people have no concept of what it means to befriend non-Jews on an intimate, nonsuperficial level—simply because, in many cases, they have not been exposed to them.
I’m proud to be a member of the Conservative Jewish community; I’ve heard my rabbi give meaningful sermons on many occasions addressing all types of issues, from politics to various current events, relating to all types of people. While maintaining a certain relevance to our Jewish identity, these ideas brilliantly display Conservative Judaism’s practical application of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world.
Attending Colgate University—a mostly white, Protestant, liberal arts college—enabled me to finally put this application to the test. I grew up attending a public school that was 80% Jewish, which immersed me in an atmosphere debilitating to the development of Jewish identity. How can you truly define your identity as a Jew when you have nothing to compare it to? While many Orthodox Jews might disagree with this, I feel that this exposure is essential.
Living with and forging relationships with non-Jews for four years led me to take more pride in my Judaism. This sense of pride culminated when my freshman-year roommate, an Irish-Catholic born, self-pronounced atheist accompanied my family and me on a trip to Israel. Being able to proudly display the Jewish homeland and explain various holy sites and their significance to him was an incredibly profound experience for me.
This experience forced me to formulate my own thoughts on being Jewish in a largely non-Jewish world and it enabled me to clarify my feelings about my Jewish identity and, furthermore, to clearly articulate the source of my pride.
Chancellor Eisen says, “The Torah wants Jews to embrace the world, not to withdraw from it.” Growing up, many of us in committed Jewish families were always surrounded by Jewish peers and adults, rarely exposed to other groups of people. In this seemingly isolated world, how can our young people truly understand the uniqueness of what it means to be a Jew in today’s world and take pride in that fact? In order to represent our people, I believe you need to be comfortable amongst those who are different from you, and this is not possible unless you have the opportunity to do so.