Secular College has Strengthened My Identity as an Orthodox Jew
Updated: Nov 8, 2018
By Nava Wolgel, Class of 2021
There is something special about the Jewish holidays. Something about the way we prepare for them and the way we celebrate them as a community. This sense of community is almost tangible in Israel during the months of September and October, or by the Hebrew calendar, the months of Elul and Tishrei. In preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which occur during the month of Tishrei, synagogues throughout Israel are filled with Jews saying Selichot (prayers and poems asking for Divine mercy) late at night and early in the morning. This change in both mindset and conversation to topics of forgiveness, renewal and growth is felt by Jews throughout the land of Israel, creating a new form of national celebration.
As a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I am far away from this national celebration. I live on a college campus of 44,000 students, most of whom are not Jewish. The feeling of a whole country, or a whole campus, preparing to stand in front of God on the Day of Judgement does not exist at the University of Illinois. Rather, here, I feel this change internally and it is one that makes me feel different but also very alone.
This feeling was overwhelming as I sat in Grainger Library, the largest engineering library in the United States, on a Saturday night doing homework. I was trying to pass the time as I waited for the clock to reach midnight (the hour when Selichot would begin). It was five days before Rosh Hashana. As I looked around the large room with its pink-painted walls, I felt tears stream down my face. I felt confused and lost. I told myself I belonged in Israel, preparing for the Day of Judgement with the Jewish people as a collective. Not here. Not here feeling like I was alone in this wrong world.
In truth, most of the time I feel like I belong to two worlds. I live in a world where ideas about Torah and God are constantly running through my head. And I live in this physical
world where I attend classes about architecture and participate in club sports as a college student. These two worlds are constantly in conflict with each other. This creates a tension within me, a tension that is both motivating and exhausting. But it is because of this tension that I feel my two identities - a devout Jew and a student on a secular college campus - both become stronger.
My Jewish identity is stronger because I am exposed to an environment devoid of Jewish ideals and conversation. I will admit that this environment has negative effects on how I conduct myself. I sometimes fear that I speak badly about others or use disrespectful language. I realize these challenges and try to think of plausible solutions that will help me grow into a better person.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the greatest thinkers of 20th century Judaism, explains in his book, Halakhic Man, the following: “The sight of a tempestuous sea, of whirling, raging waves that beat upon the shore there to break, symbolize to the Judaic consciousness the struggle of the chaos and void with creation, the quarrel of deep with the principles of order and the battle of confusion with the law.” The chaos and void are constantly trying to consume this world, but God with His laws always pushes them back.
This is almost analogous to the tension I feel everyday as a Jew on a secular college campus. Sometimes the world of Torah (Jewish text) is trying to take over my every thought and sometimes I feel so immersed in my life on a college campus. There is a constant push-and-pull within me as one world tries to take over the other. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, my main challenge is to find my own balance between these conflicting worlds.
Modern Orthodoxy is a sect of Judaism that believes in a balance between Jewish beliefs, observances, and customs and secular knowledge in science, history, literature and other modern ideas. My high school espoused this concept called Torah Umada (Torah and Science) and included it as their motto: “Inspiring Beni and Bnot Torah [Sons and Daughters of the Jewish Bible] to thrive in the Modern World.” When I left my community to study at a secular university, I felt prepared to achieve academic success; however, I did not believe that I could thrive in the modern world.
I did not attend college right after I graduated high school. Rather, I spent a “gap” year in Israel at an institution for advanced Jewish studies for women where I learned in a Beit Midrash (a large communal study hall). My transition from a Beit Midrash, a world of isolated religious study, to a secular college campus was difficult. I had to learn how to individualize my values, the same values I discussed with my friends in the Beit Midrash, and apply them to my life at the University of Illinois. I had to learn how to synthesize my two identities while I remained true to both.
There is a song I listen to as I walk around campus. It reminds me to be present within this world, to be part of this college campus that is still so foreign to me, but it also reminds me that I am different. The song titled "V'zakeini L'gadel" (May I Merit to Raise) contains the verse: “May I merit to raise children and grandchildren, wise and understanding, who love and fear God, and speak the truth. May they be holy offspring, who cleave to God, and light up the world with
Torah and good deeds, and with service to the Creator.” I may sometimes believe that I am in the wrong place. I may sometimes want to leave this college campus and return to Israel to the beautiful Selichot and vibrant Beit Midrash. But that is not where I need to be right now. I belong here, at the University of Illinois, because here I can be different. Here I can allow the tension I feel between the secular and religious worlds strengthen my confidence and identity. Here I can light up the world.