Theme and Variation on Goodbye

 

Written in 2007, this piece returns to me every year with graduation. Re-reading it has become another part of the ritual. Enjoy!

I didn’t realize graduation was coming until I discovered I would miss the last Hillel Shabbat celebration of the school year. Shabbat is the Hebrew word for Sabbath, the day of rest that starts at sundown every Friday, and ends Saturday night. I count the passing weeks and years with the coming and going of this holiday. The best part is that even when it ends, I look forward to it, since it arrives every week. These rituals are part of my mental calendar, like graduation, the first day of school, the steady cycles of winter, spring, and summer break. The last Shabbat of the school year is one of my favorite celebrations. We look back at the week, and the year behind us, we bid farewell to our graduates, and we welcome the new staff of Hillel interns. We do not meet again until fall. My very last “Final Shabbat” will be next year, after I finish my masters program. Still, I was upset when I found out the conference I’m attending in Virginia coincides with this year’s celebration.

I’m trying to cobble together a story based on the graduations and goodbyes I’ve known, the see-you-tomorrow goodbyes, and the forever goodbyes. I never want anything to end, but eventually, everything does. If I’ve learned anything in college, it’s that no school year is like the one before it. Our lives are marked by change, the comings and goings of seasons and friends. Ever since my friend died, not long after he graduated in 2005, goodbyes have felt like little deaths. At graduation, he promised he’d visit in the fall. Goodbyes can be betrayals, when sudden absence replaces a promised return.

At Shabbat services, we need a minyan – a group of at least 10 people – to ritually call each other to prayer. We can call ourselves to prayer without 10 people, but we need a congregation to call to each other. This emphasis on the congregation means every Friday night feels different, yet the same: we sing the same songs, but they differ, depending on who is singing. After five years of greetings and goodbyes, Hillel holidays, and weekly services, the room is heavy with missing voices. I might be surrounded by people I love, but a silence accompanies every song. Memories wander inside, sometimes unsolicited, when we open the door to welcome Shabbat.

For a long time, I was obsessed with photographing doorways and windows. It started when I had only a few weeks left at Valley Forge National Historical Park, where I worked as a tour guide and historical re-enactor during summer 2005. I took pictures of the view though the door at Washington’s Headquarters, and through the window of the fee booth. There was nothing particularly beautiful outside. I’d just grown accustomed to it, and somewhere along the line I decided that this is what “home” is all about – it’s the part of you that opens into morning light, the door that closes when it’s time to say goodbye.

We are always leaving, arriving, and leaving again. Shabbat comes every week, and each school year has its end. But somehow, when it’s The Last Time, the most mundane activities become sacred: “The Last Midnight Safeway Shopping Spree,” “The Last Dumpster Dive,” “The Last Bluebook Exam.” We cannot look forward without looking back. The Last leans on the time before the last, the final hinges on the first. We create histories, even where none exist.

By mid-June, I will have witnessed five years of college commencements, and this would have been my fifth “Final Shabbat.” Still, no matter how I’ve tried to knit my farewells, to force my Valley Forge and graduation goodbyes to speak to each other, it never quite works. My loved ones leaving this year will take their place alongside my other memories. The memories will find me at Hillel, or at a favorite coffee shop. They will tap me on the shoulder when I least expect it, but these goodbyes, like the previous ones, defy the notion that it will all be ok. Some people have been whirlwind friends – in and out of my life before I knew what changed me. Others will be in my life, in some way, for a long time.

I accept the stories people tell each other – that all endings are beginnings, that it’s better to “live in the moment” than to live looking backward. But the real impossibility of goodbye is that although the door has closed, there is no immediate emotional closure. I still feel pangs of absence in the presence of memory. When the silences announce themselves, it’s difficult to accept that the “beauty of the moment” cancels the sudden loss. Yet, I can’t deny that I’m grateful for voices that enriched my life when I heard them, week after week. Saying goodbye, then, is another ritual. Instead of coming every Friday night, school ends every year, and everything changes. Despite the discomfort, the end reminds me that I’m still living through it, and that another beginning will come.

 

Parsha Shemot

You’re walking through the desert and you’ve been walking forever. You are walking away from something you’re trying to forget. You’re not sure what you should be walking toward, but you do know you have to walk. There is sand between your toes and there’s a pebble in your sandal that’s just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don’t stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you’ve never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. Until you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?

Parsha Shemot is the beginning of the story of Exodus, and it includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through the burning bush. When Moses moves toward the strange burning, God calls out to him. “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, Hineini, “Here I am.” Hineini is a statement of focused presence. I am here. I am listening. I am ready.

“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I am, I am, I am, it says.  Hineini, you respond. I am, too.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” says God. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings.”

Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, but somehow they came with you – their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.

God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knows the sufferings of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. This is empathy: to know the suffering of others, whether or not you can personally relate. According to Rashi, God demonstrates that God is with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.

“The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” God says. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

 God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.

“I will be with you,” God says. “I will be with you.” God doesn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God doesn’t tell Moses “This is your job – now deal with it.” I will be with you is validating and honest. God never tries to convince Moses that the exodus will be easy. Instead, God shows Moses that he will not be on this journey alone.

People often feel isolated when they face personal challenges, alone in our personal deserts, waiting for a bush to burn. I can talk with multiple students in the same week who are facing similar challenges, but they all think that they are the only one. It’s tough to combat feelings of loneliness because vulnerability is scary – our own and the vulnerability of others. Of course we are compelled to walk away from it all, to face the suffering of others by suffering alone.

This is why God’s promise, “I will be with you” is such a powerful and healing response. When we don’t actually know the outcome of a situation, “It’s all going to be ok” is a hard to swallow, and “just stay positive” can feel like blame. Validation and acceptance create a safe space for real growth and change. “Yes, this is really hard. It feels impossible. And yet, here I am with you, and I will stay.” My friend Donnovan likes to say “Your presence is the medicine.” When there’s not much to say to someone who is suffering, being present is enough. Presence means you’re not walking away. Presence says “Your pain is not taboo.” Presence says “You have not lost me, even if you feel like you have lost everything.” Presence says “Hineini,” Here I Am. I am listening. I am with you. Like Moses, most of us just need to know that we are not alone.

In honor of this parsha and at the start of our secular new year, I encourage you to really listen to your friends and loved ones, to seek an understanding of their suffering, even if you can’t personally relate. Listen to what your loved ones are saying and not saying, and check your assumptions when you’re about to offer advice. A simple “I will be with you,” may be more than enough. Suffering is hard, and isolation makes it harder. Your presence is the medicine. Only together can we do the work of healing.

Bearing the Weight of my History

This is an “oldie-but-goodie.” I wrote this in fall 2005. I have performed it on stage and on live radio and I find that its message keeps coming back to me because I work with young women and I am always considering the way we talk about our bodies. Enjoy!

My body looks like Russia. It is immense. It spans a hearty portion of the Eastern Hemisphere. There is very little room for neighboring start-up republics on its borders, and when I was younger, I feared I was doomed to live like a frozen wasteland forever. Everything about me kept getting bigger. In fourth grade, my breasts resembled onion domes. By sixth grade, they were the size of St. Petersburg. These days, I think my breasts may be out to take over the world. You could hide nuclear missiles in there! I don’t recommend it though. You may not be able to find them again.

On the map of my body, stretch marks climb over my hips like rivers trying to reach both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. The space between my legs, though not as barren as I feared it would be, seems to get lost between the snow-crested mountains of my thighs.

I inherited this Russian body from my foremothers. They handed it down with their recipes for matzo-ball soup and knish. I can still see my weight-conscious family members frowning around the table, examining my expanding waistline as they examined their own, while my great-grandmother, who sat on the other side of the table, encouraged me to take another helping. What, you should want to deny your heritage? This recipe was my grandmother’s! Eat! Enjoy! We are a zaftig (full-figured) people, that’s how we survived hard winters in Russia, and now, ha! We use food as a way to survive everything! We kvetch (complain) about how big we are, and then we eat more because we’re upset. Nu (so), it’s in our blood. What can we do about it but thank God that we have hearty appetites and big hearts to match.

I tried to listen to my great-grandmother’s words, but it’s awkward to be the largest country. I don’t mean to take up most of the space in Europe, but at least I’m nice about it. I only occupy the spaces no one else wants, the cold, lonely places where the nights are white and the darkness envelops the day. I’m clumsy about government too. My immensity gets in the way, and I seem to trip over everything.

You’d think I would do something about this. I’ve tried. I stopped eating for awhile, in hopes that I could slim down to the size of Italy, or maybe even Chile. It worked at first, but my heritage stuck out in strange places. My waist and hips lost their gargantuan dimensions, and my face took on that sexy angular look, complete with the hollow eyes and sunken cheeks that many people associate with third-world starvation. My breasts, however, never shrank down to normal size. Russia evacuated most of my body and the entire population took refuge in my chest. They threatened to secede and become countries of their own.

Eventually, I grew tired of trying to be the size of Switzerland. I could squeeze into smaller spaces, and at last I was pleased with the country staring back at me in the mirror. But the truth is, I never really fit into that shrunken frame. I was sick all the time, dizzy from my efforts to battle off sinister invaders like bread, cheese, potatoes, and even carrots, those dangerously carb-laden vegetables. I’d wanted to train for a marathon, but my body couldn’t seem to handle it. When I started to pass out after running too many miles without enough fuel, I decided that I couldn’t avoid my Russian heritage any longer.

I gently allowed my body the time it needed to grow again. At first, it was kind of fun – I enjoyed all the food I’d denied myself for so long, though I consumed a hearty serving of Jewish guilt with every bite. But after awhile, as my body regained its Russian proportions, I began to wish that there was anything I could do to abandon my genes – or squeeze into smaller ones.

My great-grandmother’s age finally crept up on her in the fall of my freshman year of college. She died at the age of 98, and I wrote poetry for her all morning, this woman who represented my past. She was one of my few family members who could tell me about Russia as she remembered it – a legacy far bigger than my body snuggled between the bodies of my foremothers and the daughters of our future.

These days, I still kvetch about my size. Having a Russian body means that shopping is devastating, my breasts hurt when the car goes over speed bumps, and every time I eat, I know that I’m feeding the Russian peasants who live in my thighs. Some days, I still look in the mirror and bemoan my figure, even though it is part of my past.

But other days, when I look at the curves of my breasts and hips, I can hear my ancestors laugh with full-figured good nature as they sit together over elaborate meals, passing the kugel and the stories across the table. This is where we enjoy old recipes cooked up and often exaggerated for flavor, this is where my own experiences collide with my history, and this is where my future will be –   served up with a sizeable portion of memories, and shared with my zaftig, loving, Russian family.

Close Up: Memory, Confrontation, and the Days of Awe – High Holiday Sermon, 5774

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur is sealed; who will live and who will die.” This text from our High Holiday liturgy flooded my mind as I entered the gas chamber at Dachau Concentration Camp. The guide had explained that the word “Brausebad,” painted in black above the doorway, is no longer the German word for “shower.” After the Holocaust, the Germans started using a different term because “Brausebad” was the last word that so many millions of people saw before their deaths. When the year begins, we don’t know who will live and who will die. The victims of the gas chamber did not know either. I walked in, I saw the false shower heads, murmured the Mourners Kaddish in the middle of tiled room. And then, thanks to the timing of my birth, I walked out. 70 years ago, the only way out was through the chimney, and here I was, in July 2013, just walking through, processing the moment through my camera lens, like I always do – breathing, living, remembering. I visited Dachau this summer after spending a week in Berlin with Germany Close Up, a program designed to introduce young American Jews to modern Germany, heavily subsidized by the German government. A Holocaust survivor I know told me that if the German government was paying to bring young American Jews to Germany, it was for one reason only. But she was wrong. I returned. I am safe. I went to two concentration camps, and felt a surge of elated energy as I passed through the gates on the way out, overwhelmed with gratitude for my continued liberation.

I went to Germany with questions, and like any good Jew, I returned with more questions. I returned on the cusp of the month of Elul, the month when Jews, as Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) says, look at the window instead of looking through the window: “When the shofar blows on the first day of Elul,” he says, “and every morning thereafter, it reminds us to turn our gaze inward, and to place judgment at the gates of our consciousness, to shift our focus from the outside world to the considerable activity taking place in the window through which we view it.”1 In this prelude to the High Holidays, Jews deepen our awareness, apologize to those we have wronged, and make plans to grow as human beings over the year to come. We have the opportunity to look back, to remember, and to learn how we can move forward in the new year.

Stolperstein - Stumbling Stones Berlin taught me a lot about looking back. For the first time, I had the opportunity to ask non-Jewish Germans, outright: What did your family do in the war? Most of them had no idea. It wasn’t something you talked about, their families said. It was something you remembered. You can’t walk anywhere in Berlin without remembering something. The city itself seems to have PTSD. Look down at the cobbled sidewalks and you see gold stumbling stones inscribed with the name of a Jew who lived in that spot, noting the date of deportation and the place of their death. Look up and there’s the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, tremendous and dominating, so much a part of the landscape that children have snowball fights amid the giant blocks during the winter. Turn the corner and there’s another memorial, in Hebrew, English, and German. Everywhere, the memory of someone we lost and the culture that went with them.

I don’t think anyone in Berlin has the chance to forget, even for a minute. It was like a tour through my own psyche. Yes, my psyche – I’m an American Jew, three generations removed from the Holocaust. I grew up reading too many books about the Holocaust, and had nightmares in which Dr. Mengele shot my mother while I had to watch. I was 10. I’d never been to a concentration camp and I did not know my own family’s Holocaust story, but somehow, these memories became my own. My favorite author, Jonathan Safran Foer, says “Jews have six senses: Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”2

Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

Visiiting Berlin, I got the sense that the city itself remembers the way Jews remember, with a sixth sense. Young German non-Jews who have no connection to the Holocaust still feel guilty when they meet someone Jewish. Holocaust education in the schools is extensive. Most highschool classes visit a concentration camp. All are required to visit a memorial.By the time they get through school, they are tired of hearing about it, tired of feeling guilty, tired of questions that don’t have answers: What did our family do in the war? What can we do about it? How can I live with this history? The trauma of the Holocaust has been passed down, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, among Jews and non-Jewish Germans alike.

The psychology of trauma teaches us that exposure is the only way to heal. Talking about it. Recognizing the pain. Being with it. Germany Close Up provided an opportunity for us to do that together. I don’t know if a r’fuah shlemah – a complete healing – is possible. But I do know that confronting the issue through compassionate conversation, sitting with the pain together, was itself a healing experience. As Rabbi Lew says of our sins, “What’s done cannot be undone— but it can be healed; it can even become the instrument of our healing.”3

We are good at remembering, but confronting trauma is much harder, and there comes a time when “never forget” just isn’t enough. For me, that time was this summer. I went to Germany because I was ready to explore some of the deeper issues in my own memory and in our collective Jewish memory. I engaged directly with the site of the trauma, with contemporary Germans, and shared a Shabbat dinner with the new Jewish community in Berlin. I also learned that Israelis love to visit Berlin and that Germans love to visit Israel. It’s harder for American Jews, and I’m not sure why. We remember. We’re not ignoring the trauma. But many of us are not coping with it either.

This is just one example of an evaded issue – the largest unresolved trauma of the 20th cenIMG_2441tury, and part of our collective Jewish memory. I know that some are not yet ready to get on a plane and fly to Berlin to cope with it. But I wonder if each of you can take this opportunity over the next ten Days of Awe to consider other evaded issues in your personal experience. What other traumas have you been ignoring? What is it that you are remembering, but not facing? What would it be like for you to engage directly with a painful experience in your personal memory – perhaps the death of a loved one, a challenge to your identity, a moment when you were unkind to someone who reminded you of something you fear in yourself? Can you acknowledge your failings and traumas without allowing them to consume you?

On Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, another traumatic story in our collective history. I have often wondered what it was like for Isaac, who lived the rest of his life knowing that his father was seconds away from sacrificing him. How did Isaac walk through the world carrying this trauma? Did he relive that slow walk up the mountain in his nightmares? Did he wake up relieved that he could move his arms and legs, that he was not bound after all, to the memory of the wood, the knife, and the imminence of fire? I’m sure Isaac never forgot the terrifying moment Abraham stood above him with the knife. What traumatic moments do you replay in your own memory over and over again? And are you hiding behind the memory itself, instead of engaging in the more painful but rewarding task of confrontation?

It is not for me to say that you need to enter your personal gas chamber so that you can walk out. Only you can decide when you’re ready to confront your own trauma, and you get to decide what that means for you. All I’m asking is that you take this time during the Days of Awe to notice the window you’re looking through. Then, when you’re ready, you can open it.

Note: Hillel at Stanford is now partnering with Germany Close Up, so I will be staffing this trip over spring break 2014. If you are a Jewish student at Stanford and you want to know more about how to get involved, email me at hpaul@stanford.edu.

If you are not a Hillel at Stanford student and you would like to do this program, check out the Germany Close Up website to learn more! 


1. Lew, Alan (2003-08-01). This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 78). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.

2. Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything is Illuminated (p. 193). Harper Perennial; 1st Perennial Edition/6th Printing edition (April 1, 2003)

3. Lew, Alan (2003-08-01). This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 29). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.

 

We Are All Educators

Originally published on hillel.org on 1/2/13.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the term “experiential education.” Dr. Gabe Goldman explained the concept as part of a program at the Western Hillel Organization conference. Goldman taught that all experiences have the potential to be educative. The educator can make the experience engaging and interactive by creating the right setting, and asking questions that encourage and empower students to construct their own ideas based on the experience. As Goldman, who is the Director of Experiential Education at American Jewish University, began to explain this concept, my first thought was, “My work has a name!” My second thought was, “I want to learn everything I can from this guy before the conference is over.” Imagine my thrill when I discovered that “Principles of Experiential Education” was on the course list for my HUC-JIR program. This was my chance to discover the language and theories that support the work we do at Hillel every day.

When I say “we,” I am not only referring to rabbis or Senior Jewish Educators. One of the most powerful concepts I have come to understand throughout this course is that program and engagement professionals truly are educators. When we staff an alternative break or a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip and facilitate follow-through programs, when we hang out with students at a social barbecue, or when we take a freshman out for coffee, we are – or can be – doing the work of educators. Seeing programming and engagement in the context of some of the theories we learned in class has inspired me to seek teachable moments in each of those settings. You don’t have to have “educator” in your title to organize programming and leadership opportunities that inspire learners to grow, to ask questions, or to change their perspectives.

Each of the experiential education theories had plenty to offer, and in this post, I’m going to focus on two in particular. The first is a set of learning steps for an experiential model, developed by Stephan Carlson and Sue Maxa, in their article, “Pedagogy Applied to Nonformal Education.” Although this article was published in a journal dedicated to the 4H program, the concepts apply to experiential education in a much broader sense. According to Carlson and Maxa, “Experiential learning requires both active cooperation of the learner and guidance from the leader…Experiences lead to learning if the individual understands what happened, sees the patterns of observation emerge, draws generalizations from these observations, and understands how to use the generalizations again in a new situation.”

Through the experiential model, learners:

  1. Do the activity (before being told or shown how)
  2. Share results and observations
  3. Process – analyze and reflect on the experience
  4. Generalize – relate the experience to a real-world example
  5. Apply – use what was learned in a similar of different situation.

Carlson and Maxa emphasize the importance of questioning in the process and generalizing steps. This is where a Hillel professional can facilitate meaningful discussion by asking questions that make the experience educational.

I also found Joseph Reimer and David Bryfman’s chapter in What We Now Know About Jewish Education to be particularly helpful in a Hillel context. Reimer and Bryfman state that, “experiential Jewish learning involves three distinct initiatives, each with its own set of goals: recreation, socialization, and challenge.” In recreation, they explain, “experiential Jewish education aims to provide its participants with social comfort, fun and belonging in a Jewish context.” Socialization “aims to provide the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be an active member of the Jewish community.” Jewish educators also “aim to encourage participants to undertake the challenge of stretching themselves and growing towards a more complex participation in one’s Jewish life.” In short, experiential Jewish education programs should be fun and enjoyable, should encourage connection to Judaism and Jewish identity, and should challenge learners to get outside their comfort zones, “so they feel they are on a Jewish journey and not simply a member of a Jewish club.”

I can imagine that for some Hillel professionals, these theories may feel superfluous: “I already program this way intuitively; why should I name the process?” I propose that shared educational language provides us with a better way to communicate and learn from each other, and to learn from educators outside of Hillel.

At Hillel at Stanford, I enjoy using these and other theories to evaluate and to set educational goals for programs and engagement. I have Carlson and Maxa’s chart and Reimer and Bryfman’s initiatives tacked to my bulletin board so I remember to ask myself the right questions:

  • Does this reflection activity involve opportunities for generalization, so students connect the experience to the rest of their lives?
  • Does this experience offer enough balance between recreation, socialization, and challenge?
  • Do my questions invite students to construct their own learning?

Drawing on these resources, Hillel professionals can learn to seek and employ the teachable moments in each experience, whether it’s an alternative break orientation, a barbecue, or a coffee date. We are all educators; we just have to recognize the opportunities to educate.

 

Pluralism, Dissonance, and Jewish Identity Formation

Originally published on hillel.org: 9/12/2012 

My introduction to Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) opened in a very Jewish way: with a question. “How can we, as Jews, be a part of and apart from American culture? That’s a rhetorical question right now, but I want you to start today, and then work on answering it for the rest of your life.” We laughed, but the asker, Rabbi Tali Zelkowicz, Ph.D., was right. As Jewish professionals, the questions we ask ourselves come with answers that change over time. This is because identities, communities, and ideals are anything but static. Rabbi Zelkowicz taught us to stop saying “Jewish identity” but rather to say “Jewish Identity Formation,” because identity develops throughout our lives. We need to recognize the moments of change, and meet people where they’re at. “Identity works as a process, not a product, and educators do not ‘make’ Jews,” she said, (and quoting Hillel the elder) “The rest is commentary.”

I’m one of sixteen students in HUC-JIR’s graduate education certificate program, which focuses on teens and emerging adults. This one-year “hybrid” learning program combines online and in-person learning, and began with a three-day intensive that included the Jewish Identity Formation course. While I’m starting my fifth year as a Hillel professional and my third at Hillel at Stanford, the other students in my cohort all work with teens. At first, I was concerned that much of what we learned might be a stretch to apply to Hillel. I was also concerned that the Reform focus would not address the issues of pluralism that Hillel professionals face in our daily work, where our community members are all over the religious spectrum. At times, varying views on diverse topics like taking pictures on Shabbat or women’s prayer at the Western Wall can create acute conflict that contributes to an underlying tension within the Hillel community. However, I was pleased to find that I’ve already gained tools that are very applicable to these challenges.

The Jewish Identity Formation class provided an interesting perspective on the “dissonance,” or conflict, between American and Jewish cultures. In conversations about our personal identity formation, we quickly noticed that moments of dissonance often strengthened or deepened our understanding of our Jewish identities. While the conflict is painful in the moment, dissonance is necessary because it moves us to take action to discover our Jewish identity formation.

For example, one student had endured a painful conversation about intermarriage with her rabbi, who refused to officiate at her wedding to a patrilineal Jew. She decided that inclusivity was an important part of her Jewish life – more important than having a specific rabbi officiate her wedding – and she found another rabbi whose beliefs about intermarriage were more in line with her own. That student learned something about herself from this moment of dissonance: that what really mattered to her was raising a Jewish family with her partner’s support. As it turns out, internal dissonance can be a wonderful opportunity for Jewish identity formation and personal growth.

Identity formation intensifies during emerging adulthood. Our students are trying to define themselves on a personal level and on a community level. They have their first opportunities to design their own Jewish experience, away from their families’ Judaism. They get to decide how much they want to be apart from and a part of American culture, as American Jews. That instability can be terrifying for emerging adults, and Hillel professionals can help to support the students as they navigate this uncertainty. We can support our students in a way that validates every variation of their practice, but more importantly, we can create a safe space to challenge those variations, and to provoke those moments of dissonance and transition that lead to further identity formation and growth. For example, a Jewish student who wants a Star of David tattoo would benefit from discussing the decisions with a Hillel professional beforehand. We can provide this student with perspective about Halacha (Jewish law) and tattoos, and we can ask the student why they want to get a Jewish tattoo in the first place. It’s not up to us to persuade the student one way or the other, but Hillel professionals can ensure that the student is making an informed, intentional choice.

I always try to come back from conferences, institutes, and other learning opportunities with a few nuggets of wisdom or new ideas, and with a question for further discussion. This week, my question was inspired by our conversation about dissonance, as it applies to pluralism. We know now that personal dissonance is necessary for individual growth, but what about dissonance within the community? A student’s internal struggle about what it means to be Jewish often becomes an external conflict with another student who has a different perspective. Statements like “you’re not really Jewish” or “your Judaism is outdated and sexist” are incredibly hurtful to a student who is just beginning to develop his or her own Jewish practice. If we can help our students navigate their personal moments of dissonance, perhaps they will have more compassion toward each other when they externalize the conflict.

Furthermore, if internal dissonance fuels identity formation, is it possible that external conflict also provides an opportunity for growth? When conflicts arise between students who celebrate Judaism in different ways, how can we help our students see the positive learning opportunities within the nodes of dissonance? And although we may or may not work on answering this question for the rest of our lives, this time, it’s not rhetorical. Please share your thoughts, answers, and further questions by posting a comment below. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you!