Some of the greatest things about college are the opportunities to ask questions, experience new things, challenge the status quo, and figure out whom we want to be based on our own standards. As a Hillel rabbi, I am deeply honored to be a part of these conversations with the students I serve on a daily basis.
Though Judaism has always been a tradition where people asked questions, college is often the first time today that students will truly grapple with how (if at all) their religion plays a role in their lives, separate from whatever traditions, or lack thereof, they grew up with at home. It is a unique gift to work with thoughtful individuals who come from such diverse backgrounds. Rarely in organized Jewish communities are conversations of pluralism lived out on a daily basis in the way they are at Hillel, because very few communities are made up of people who choose to be there simply because they want to be, with no membership commitments, without signing onto a theological or ritual set of shared norms. There are fewer sacred cows at a Hillel than in other Jewish communities, and so it forces us to talk to really try and understand one another if we want to be a functional community.
This is Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, in its richest sense - people from all over with a plethora of practices and beliefs, doing our best to validate everyone's unique relationship with Judaism while remaining true to our own understanding. This environment welcomes conversations not only between staff and student, but also between students themselves. It provides an opportunity for students to articulate, perhaps for the first time, why they do what they do or believe what they believe. Even more uniquely, it provides a chance for students to articulate why they don't do what they don't do or why they don't believe what they don't believe.
As a Hillel professional, I am privileged to be a part of these conversations. As a rabbi, I feel the weightiness of the implications of such conversations. I encourage the students I work with to strive for respectful dialogue, to use "I statements," to not make assumptions or pass judgment on another person's Jewish identity. It's our only hope as a people.
These students are the future of Judaism. What an awe-some job to be a part of the conversations, to encourage the questions and pose new ways of looking at a situation, and what a tremendous gift to be able to learn from these talented, intelligent members of my community.
Rabbi Gail Swedroe (pictured on right) is the Assistant Director and Campus Rabbi at the University of Florida Hillel, where she has worked since July 2012. She started her Hillel career as a Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow doing engagement work at Stanford Hillel. She finds great joy in encouraging students to ask questions of our tradition while also highlighting how Judaism can help us lead more meaningful lives.