Good evening. I’m Brian Freeman, co-Vice President of Dartmouth Hillel for Fall 2010, and I’d like to welcome the ’14s to Dartmouth and to Hillel’s Kol Nidre services. Three years ago, I was sitting right where you are now, taking a break after an overwhelming first few days at Dartmouth. In the years since then, I’ve learned that it’s good to pause every once in a while to take stock of where you’ve been and where you want to go. Lately, I’ve been thinking about my Israeli cousin’s favorite expression: “al teedag – teheeyeh yehudi.” Roughly translated, it means “Don’t worry, Be Jewish.” My other Israeli cousin hates this expression. “What does it mean, “Be Jewish?” It’s stupid,” she says. And on one level, she’s right. Being Jewish in Israel is taken for granted – it’s like “Being American” in the United States. It’s part of almost everyone’s identity, yet it rarely surfaces in daily life. Outside of Israel, however, “Being Jewish” is significantly more challenging. You have to make a real effort to live Jewishly when Judaism isn’t a part of the national culture.
So what does it mean, then, to “Be Jewish” in the United States? I’ll tell you… I don’t know. My friend Andrey, who was born in the officially atheist and anti-Semitic Soviet Union, says, “I am Jewish no matter what. I have always known that and will forever be Jewish. Why? Because being Jewish encompasses not just the religion, but the culture, the history, and the traditions as well. I am culturally Jewish. It is a very important part of who I am and who my family is.” My friend Eliana, who grew up Orthodox but went to a Conservative synagogue to learn to read Torah, says, “I love that I can come from an intermarried family and go from orthodox to conservative to orthodox, but at the end of the day still feel completely connected to any kind of Jew I run into on campus.” Clearly, being Jewish involves much more than reciting the Shema or avoiding ham and cheese sandwiches. Being Jewish is belonging to the “the world’s largest fraternity” – and you don’t even have to rush. It’s a community bound together by a shared history and ritual tradition. While specific observances vary from person to person, there exists among Jews a strong sense of common identity. Though their practices of Judaism differ markedly, both Andrey and Eliana feel at home at Dartmouth Hillel.
How can that be? Because Hillel is like a Purim basket; pick out the things that appeal to you and skip over the things that don’t. Hillel’s full of people with different backgrounds and preferences, so we sponsor a mix of social, religious, and academic activities. On the social side, we have Jews and Java coffee hours, Jew Crew (a club for freshmen), bagel brunches, movie nights, and Chanukah and Purim Balls. On the religious side, we have Shabbat services and dinners, a weekly morning minyan, and creative holiday programs, such as Pizza in the Hut for Sukkot and a 100-person community Seder for Passover. On the academic side, we teach Hebrew school and Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons, bring in knowledgeable Jewish speakers, and organize panels on issues of faith and identity. We also have the good fortune of sharing a beautiful building with the Upper Valley Jewish Community, a vibrant and welcoming egalitarian congregation. The UVJC joins Hillel on Shabbat evenings, bringing a warm family atmosphere to our Shabbat dinners. In short, we offer a wide range of programs catering to any Jewish taste. And if you have an idea for an activity we don’t currently offer, we have the resources to make it happen. Now that you’re on your own, and your parents can no longer drag you to Hebrew school or Shabbat morning services, you have the freedom to choose the aspects of Judaism that are most meaningful to you.
My own Jewish journey was far from straightforward. I grew up in an interfaith family but was very involved in my home congregation, reading Torah on Yom Kippur, teaching Hebrew school, even performing in the Klezmer band. Once I got to Dartmouth, however, I drifted away from Judaism. After all, I only really participated in my synagogue at home because my parents and my Rabbi expected me to. I had never really thought about how I wanted to “Be Jewish,” so I just gave it up altogether. Several terms went by before I became aware of an emptiness. As strange as it sounds, I actually started to miss going to services. I gradually reconnected with Jewish life through Hillel, attending Shabbat evening services, cooking Shabbat dinners, singing with the Chai-Lows Jewish a cappella group, and finally joining the Hillel board. Along the way, I have befriended and learned from people like Andrey and Eliana, people with Jewish backgrounds vastly different from my own. I don’t always agree with their ideas, but they enrich my understanding of the rich pluralism of Jewish life.
Therefore, I will leave you with “al teedag – teheeyeh yehudi”: Don’t worry, Be Jewish. I urge you to take the time to think about what “Being Jewish” means to you. If you need some ideas, come to Hillel. The door’s always open, and there’s even free cookie dough in the freezer. If you have a good idea of what “Being Jewish” means to you, we’d love for you to stop by and share your experiences. Apart from the spiritual guidance of Rabbi Boraz and the invaluable assistance of Claudia Palmer, Hillel is completely student-run, so we will rely on all of you to help us build a vibrant Jewish community at Dartmouth.
Gmar Chatimah Tova – May you be inscribed for a good year, a year of health, happiness, and personal growth. We hope to see you again soon.