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The Power of Pluralism
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The View From CampusYale University

The Power of Pluralism

It’s a path forward for college students uncertain about the moral and religious lessons they’ve inherited.

Branford College, one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges. Courtesy of Gabriel Klapholz.
Branford College, one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges. Courtesy of Gabriel Klapholz.

For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure what to wear to Friday night services this past semester. When I prayed in Orthodox Jewish spaces growing up, I wore a lot of blue and white, argyle sweaters and black Shabbat shoes. At egalitarian services in college, I have shifted to new patterns and colors, horizontal stripes and the occasional yellow. But what was I to wear to a pluralistic Kabbalat Shabbat? How could I dress for three different minyanim at once?

I was put at ease when I walked into Friday night services and found the Yale Hillel community in front of me reflecting the diversity I had struggled to capture in my own wardrobe. I sat among my friends — young Jews who shared one thing in common: They cared. Through this communal caring, we were able to remind ourselves why we do what we do — why we pray, come to Shabbat dinner and love Judaism in all its holiness, messiness and beauty.

Jewish pluralism today possesses an immense power, one that cuts across denominationalism and reveals the incredible force of Jewish identity in its most fundamental form. As young Jews in particular find themselves caught in the religious and political polarization of today’s Jewish community, pluralism provides a path forward — at least it has for me. 

During the first week of January, I attended the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage Student Seminar. Once a year, the Hartman Institute, in partnership with Hillel, brings Jewish undergraduates from all across North America to Jerusalem to learn about and discuss Jewish peoplehood. The diversity among the Jewish students there was electrifying — no question was off limits, no stone unturned. I could feel the gravity of the project at hand: allowing Jews from all different backgrounds have a voice in our collective story.

As an LGBTQ+ Jew, I often receive the question: how do you reconcile your Jewish and LGBTQ+ identities? Being at Hartman and speaking to other LGBTQ+ Jews from across the country helped me challenge the premise of that question. My voice counted not in spite of but because of who I am, because I had something to share that others may not have thought of or considered.

Many young North American Jews today — especially in college — don’t know what to believe. Their parents handed down sharp religious divides, a contentious geopolitical conflict in Israel and an array of Jewish institutions and organizations working to make sense of it all. The uncertainty can feel crippling.

Pluralism responds to this challenge by demanding that we engage with the deep problems that face the Jewish community today — that we refuse to stop caring. Under the baseline assumption that no one individual, stream of Judaism, or school of thought can provide all the answers, we are forced to develop a shared moral and religious language, to become problem solvers not only within our immediate Jewish radius, but also within the complicated tapestry of the Jewish world at large.

What makes Hillel and Hartman such important institutions for me is that they encourage young Jews to embrace the uncertainty, to shed their unwavering confidence that they are doing things the “right” way. In doing so, we are able to gain new perspective and think of truly communal answers to communal problems.   

I was fortunate to spend a whole year studying at Hartman as part of the Hevruta gap-year program. When I finished the program a year and a half ago, I was ready to get out into the Jewish world and make my voice heard. But then I had to make new friends, write papers and take finals.

That is why singing “Yedid Nefesh” and “Lecha Dodi” at pluralistic Kabbalat Shabbat at Hillel this past semester was so special. My proudly pluralistic Jewish community gave me strength to hold all of the contradictions and questions, the debates and the dialogues, in one shared space.

One of the most frustrating parts of college culture is how in vogue it is not to care. It’s socially acceptable to blow off a friend or come late to a meal you had organized a week before or let your suitemates clean up the dorm while you make a phone call. Hillel and Hartman have provided me with spaces that have felt increasingly rare as I have left the comfort of my home and entered the disruptive and exciting college world: places where people care unapologetically.

Pluralism calls upon us to continue the labor of caring. Doing so enables us Jews of incredibly varied backgrounds and opinions to operate within shared conversations that challenge us rather than in the echo chambers that polarize us. Only in engaging with each other, questioning each other, and — yes — praying with each other, can we work towards solutions that strengthen Jewish peoplehood instead of further splintering it.

Gabriel Klapholz is a sophomore at Yale University. He is a 2017 Write On For Israel graduate.

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. 

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