My colleague recently shared an article with me from the Jewish Daily Forward, entitled The Myth of Authenticity by Jay Michaelson. In the article, Michaelson challenges the notion of "authentic Judaism" and suggests it is time for a paradigm shift in the way Jewish people, particularly American Jewry, classify their "Jewishness." Michaelson begins by acknowledging a fear that he believes persists in the American Jewish imagination, "an anxiety of inauthenticity - that someone, somewhere, is the real Jew, but I'm not it." Sound familiar? It definitely does to me and is an all too common chorus from college students searching to find their place in Jewish campus life.
For many young Jews, our internal concept of "Jewish" lies somewhere between Fiddler on the Roof and our grandparents. We are simultaneously challenged by the pressures of assimilation and a barrage of Jewish media while enriched by religious diversity. As a result, it's easy to get overwhelmed and put "Jewish" in a box - an irrelevant and inaccessible box which we're hesitant to open.
But must "real Jews" continue to be thought of in this antiquated way? It's definitely not my Judaism and it's not the Judaism of an entire generation of my peers, quickly making our way up the social and professional ladders. Michaelson's perception of authentic Judaism resonates profoundly with me. "Real Jews are the ones who make Judaism real for themselves." That means turning the traditional notion of a "real Jew" upside down and working to eliminate those underlying associations.
I am fortunate to be professionally immersed in an organization that is already deeply committed to taking on the challenge Michaelson presents. Hillel passionately and strategically seeks to, "â€¦inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life," by building a movement that focuses on creating Jewish life that is authentic, accessible, and meaningful for each individual. Through well-trained staff who work with students on campuses around the world and ground-breaking initiatives like Hillel's Alternative Breaks and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, I believe Hillel is proactively and effectively helping students confront the challenge of being a "real Jew" in today's complex world.
Hillel is inspiring and equipping the next generation of budding Jewish leaders with the confidence and skills to navigate the sometimes rough waters of Jewish life by engaging students in conversations and activities that transcend "the box." David Kasher, Senior Jewish Educator at the University of California Berkley Hillel explains, "It is one of the core beliefs of my teaching that by merging our own conversation with the ongoing conversation of Jewish tradition, we become authentic participants in this tradition, as well as the latest shapers of its trajectory." Thus, Hillel is completely revolutionizing the notion of what "Jewishness" means for thousands of young people on campus.
For me, Jewish authenticity is about fluidity and flexibility, not rigidity. I want the permission and respect to live my Jewish faith in a way that might traditionally be seen as a string of acceptable paradoxes. I want to consider myself ritually observant but drive on Shabbat without feeling a tinge of guilt. I do recognize that authentic Judaism takes a certain level of commitment despite living among a generation that, like myself, tends to send ambiguous text messages and make tentative plans so they can be changed at the drop of a hat.
My personal experience at Tufts University Hillel provided me a safe context coupled with gentle guidance which allowed me to proudly live my authentic version of Judaism. So Hineini, Here I am - Nathan, the guitar playing, ritually observant, left-handed, Reform Jew.