Your father called the other day and reported that he had just dropped you off for your freshman year at college. We of course reminisced about his time at college, and mine: two distant pasts that both seem like yesterday. We reflected on the new challenges facing a thoughtful, self-aware Jewish student at a liberal arts campus in America these days. Recalling the lunch conversations that you and I had over the past couple years, I started writing you a letter in my head about what I hoped (or feared) you would experience on campus and how I hoped (or worried) you would respond. Here it is.
The first thing to say is that I’m really excited for you. College, for all its many challenges, remains a uniquely wonderful place of learning and discovery. I am happy you are there. My first weeks on campus were a time I will never forget; I remember, too, how much I grew over freshman year. The world was undergoing great upheaval on every front in the late 1960s, and so was I.
That’s true of the world right now as well, I think, and I suspect it will be true of you. Your view of Judaism may change, as mine did, thanks to courses in sociology, biology, and philosophy, and long conversations with friends. Your practice of Judaism may change, too. I expect that you will experiment with different ways of being the Jewish person you are; that you will weigh habits and truth-claims you brought with you from home against the new experiences, ideas, and friends you encounter on campus. This is all to the good, B. I want you to have the space you need, and the tools you require, to figure out the kind of person you want to grow into, and the place Judaism will have in your life.
What worries me is that your time on campus may not provide you with that space, or may even deny you those tools. Three challenges especially concern me.
The most obvious is Israel: a far more complicated place generating a more complicated set of reactions from North American Jews than was the case when I arrived on campus in 1969. Sadly, you are likely to encounter fellow students (and perhaps professors) who not only criticize Israel, justly or unjustly, but deny its right to exist — and deny YOUR right to be involved in campus organizations pursuing racial or economic or gender justice so long as you continue to love and support Israel. I hope you will not sacrifice your Jewish commitments in order to win acceptance from those groups; that you never lose justified pride in Israel or the Jewish people or the Jewish tradition; that you won’t keep your head down or hide your Jewish identity or allegiances.
There’s a subtler challenge that faces students who, like you, move from homes where being Jewish stands at or near the center of family life to campuses where Judaism is utterly peripheral. Of the hundreds of courses in the catalog at your college, there may be a bare handful about Jews or Judaism. Of the many hundreds or thousands of students on campus, there may be only a small minority who identify as Jews — and for some or even many of them, being Jewish has never been terribly important, and is not now.
It’s hard under those circumstances to sustain belief that the Jewish people — about 15 million in a world of 7 billion — actually matter that much, or that Jewish tradition matters enough for you to do your part in keeping it alive. Some Jews will tell you that you have to care, because Hitler tried to kill your great-grandparents, and Jews cannot let him win. I want you to care because of the remarkable things Jews have done over the centuries and continue to do in our time; I want you to appreciate the great gifts that Judaism has given to the world, continues to give, and can provide to you personally if you make it your own by learning about it and entering into the rhythms of its practice. Your mind and heart will grow wider and deeper in college. Please don’t let your knowledge and experience of Judaism get stuck at age 16 or 13.
I love Jewish tradition and want it to remain vital. That requires Jews like you to live it fully. Under siege in our culture right now are several of the fundamental truths that Judaism teaches: that every human being merits dignity and respect; that — as complex as things are — we must never stop distinguishing truth from falsehood and right from wrong; that life matters — and the Torah commands us always to “choose life”; that history matters — so we must not give up on taking it in new and better directions. These sound like abstract values until you hear people saying that some lives are worth more than others, or that our planet is expendable; that things have never really gotten better, so why try?; or that love is foolish, and all that matters are power and possessions. I believe you and I are commanded to help make sure that the world moves in the direction of justice and compassion, rather than the reverse.
I care about you, B., and want you to have a good life and do good in the world. Judaism can help in that effort, if it lives in you. College is a great testing ground for that hope, as it is for you. May the new chapter you are beginning as the new Jewish year begins be full of sweetness and blessing.
Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.