The View From Campus Northwestern University

At The Intersection Of Faith And Secularity

Finding a Jewish comfort zone and balancing competing values.

The view from campus, looking out onto Lake Michigan and the city of Chicago. Amanda Gordon.

It’s a familiar trope: the Jewish millennial woman conflicted between the cosmopolitan, convenient hum of secular life and the demanding, rich intricacies of traditional Jewish observance. I’m just old enough to count myself among this maturing generation torn by the dichotomy of modernity and faith, and I find myself tied to the latter by the words inscribed on my favorite necklace: l’dor vador, from generation to generation.

According to a 2013 Pew Research study, only 19 percent of American Jews believe that to be Jewish is to observe Jewish law. Not surprisingly, Jews in the United States are more inclined to identify with the ethical and historical notions of Jewish identity. I, however, cannot seem to escape the weight of halacha, Jewish law, and its importance in modern Jewish life.

Shabbat at my house is somewhat of a brokered deal. We light the candles, say the prayers and eat. The ritual is quick and casual, with enough substance to satisfy my grandmother and enough efficiency to please my father, sister and me. It’s not as if my mother executes the Friday night meal as a conscious compromise, but there is an element of intergenerational reconciliation. For clarification on this topic, I look to my friend Max Weber.

Weber, a German philosopher and one of the founding figures of sociology, defined several value-spheres that dominate modern life: religion, aesthetics and politics. Weber argues that as society becomes more rational, secular and bureaucratic, certain cultural and ethical values are lost. Despite the abstractions of his argument, I have found it to be valuable as a way to think about navigating my Jewish identity as a college student.

I didn’t realize until I left the largely Jewish bubble of my hometown on Long Island that religious identity requires a form of maintenance through reflection and religious practice. 

The Northwestern Arch located at the main entrance to the campus. Wikimedia Commons

As a rising junior at Northwestern University, which has roughly 1,300 Jewish undergraduates, it’s not as if I feel isolated. Rather, I realized that it can be easy to slide into a routine of schoolwork and socializing that leaves little room for checking in with myself. I was facing the classic triangle of college life: social life, good grades or sleep. Pick two, so goes the saying.

It seems as if, like the world viewed through Weber’s value-sphere theory, college operated as a series of choices and sacrifices. A few months into my freshman year, however, I felt I had managed to juggle all three. I had made some really great friends, I was doing well in my classes and, most nights, I got seven hours of shut-eye. Still, I felt listless. I found myself calling my mom a lot, not out of homesickness, but just to keep myself tethered amidst the chaos of Northwestern’s rigorous quarter system. Like any well-intentioned Jewish mother, she gently but persistently suggested I attend some events at Northwestern’s Hillel.

It seemed counter-intuitive. Why would compromising more of my precious time alleviate my stress or fatigue? But, to my chagrin, she was right. I didn’t make it to Hillel for every Shabbat, but on those Fridays that I did, I found it to be a perfect respite from the weekly grind. It gave me a moment to pause, to unplug, to slip back into something that felt familiar.

Whether it’s bringing friends to Hillel events like Latkepalooza or attending a Jewish studies lecture on campus, I found that the act of engaging with Jewish life helped to bridge the widening gap between fulfilling the social and scholastic obligations of college and reconnecting with my Jewishness.

I also have found that the little nuances of Jewish observance, which may interfere with the demands of “normal” college life, can actually be sources of comfort. The small gestures of drinking grape juice or baking challah for Shabbat link me to my mother, the linchpin of my family’s collective religiosity. One might call these practices of Judaism merely “performative,” but I find that they can be powerful in binding me to a transcendent tradition, a resilient collective.

Millennial and post-millennial Jews have heard plenty about the so-called existential threat to Jewish spirituality. It may be packaged as secularism or urbanism or modernism, but it seems clear that levels of observance will continue to fall. And while religious observance can seem more like a weird form of status in the affluent, predominantly Jewish milieu in which I was raised, I feel a personal sense of urgency to adapt and reinterpret these practices to keep them relevant.

As I navigate college and look towards the future, I’m beginning to take stock of my intersectional, intergenerational identity. It’s interesting to wonder what Max Weber would make of intersectionality, a modern buzzword that seems to capture the struggle between spheres of life and self. Halfway into college, I recognize that there is a clash of values at play. From generation to generation, the challenge of reconciling one’s identity with the present calls for patience, commitment and a hardy dose of chutzpah.

Amanda Gordon is a rising junior at Northwestern University.

 

 

 

 

 

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program. 

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