Jewish students should feel empowered to bring joy into their spaces

Ben Segall is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs studying Security Policy Studies.

It was on one of the last temperate nights of fall when I attended a gay-pride-themed Shabbat at another university in the District. The event I attended was somewhat surreal and vaguely disappointing. For close to an hour, we chanted strangely tuned prayers oddly out of sync with one another, flanked of course by nonplussed-non-Jews who naturally had no idea what was going on. Students delivered long speeches highlighting some interplay between general liberalism and the Jewish faith.

Truthfully, I did what I’ve done throughout services since childhood. I did what everyone forced into a church, synagogue or mosque does when staring down the idle hours – I tuned out.

What broke my ritual retreat into Zen that night was unexpected. A young man emerged from the corner. He picked up a beautiful stringed instrument, called an Oud I would later discover. What followed was the most beautiful performance of music I had ever heard. I found myself, a 23-year-old graduate student who’s not typically moved to emotion, nearly crying at this casual performance of ancient melody and style. I walked home that night truly moved by the experience.

Listening to that music felt like the most joy I had experienced through my participation in American Jewish life, perhaps ever. I began to wonder why such experiences of joy in Jewish cultural organizations had become such an unexpected surprise. Why had my own presence at weekly Jewish dinners become a sort of cultural responsibility, in lieu of the privilege which communal belonging ought to be?

The basic dilemma I’m confronted with is why Jewish communities can’t more easily generate collective joy. Members of Chabad GW constantly reiterate that the antithesis of antisemitism is not the lack of antisemitism, rather, it is semitism: the active celebration of Jewish identity and culture. I now ask, what does that really mean? What does it mean to celebrate Judaism? Is it to celebrate bravery in the face of bullying and unpopularity? Is it to stand up for vulnerable groups, as we hope would be done for us? Is it to chant an ancient language to feel connected with two millennia of ancestors long passed?

Undoubtedly, there are many different answers to these questions, but the most universal is our will to experience contentment and harmony with other members of our community. The celebration of love and life is how I want my identity to register, both among Jews and the outsiders interested in our culture. Right now, I feel as though the Jewish community is failing, both to truly enjoy ourselves and to generate sympathy among the non-Jews who are so often our guests. The issue of group cohesion and cultural joy is not unique to GW. Without a doubt, Jewish life at GW is more supportive than many other communities around the world. This issue encompasses diaspora Jewish culture in general and how we want to spend our limited time and effort. In many ways, Jewish student groups are the backbone of our diasporic experience, and we need to do better.

Jewish organizations want us to be proud of our culture and stand in our own defense. The only way to do that adequately is to give students something to truly love and fear to lose. When, as Jewish students, we cherish our relationship with the Jewish community, we more actively fight to defend it. I worry that we’ve jumped to the latter without acknowledging a lack of the former.

I don’t have all the answers for positive institutional change within me nor do I have magic spells capable of instilling instant communal harmony. But a good starting point is to treat Sabbath dinners true to their nature – as celebrations of rest. Students should be excited to relax in congregation on Friday night, to enjoy one or two sanctioned alcoholic beverages and to celebrate the week’s end with those they are truly comfortable around. Without this baseline, only those with the strongest senses of cultural identity and outsider curiosity will attend Jewish events and celebrations.

Culture is not self-generating, nor can it be maintained at just one level of leadership or community. Jewish students must feel empowered to create their own spaces, although we are typically guests in institutions stewarded by vastly more experienced adults. It is us, as students, young and proud of our heritage, who must insist on joy and hospitality if we are to convince those who come next that we are a people and a culture worth celebrating and defending.

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