Hey everyone! I hope your semesters have been going well! This, along with every other entry, has come to me when I really should be applying my effort and words elsewhere-i.e. to the various essays and problem sets that require a majority of my attention-yet nonetheless, I sense serious value in the thoughts that I encounter walking from engagement to engagement, and from library experience to class. Last year, a majority of my anxieties were related directly to my academic career and most of my blabbering was, as I mentioned, a constant succession of major-minor combinations or potential jobs that would result from each of those paths. This year, I do spend nearly as much time talking about these things, but have added a thousand and one other things that are pressing in the present.
After years of day school, Ramah, and Nativ, I naturally came to one solid conclusion about my religious life: I am a Conservative Jew, yes, capital C, and I’m proud of it. So perhaps that wore off alarmingly fast as I arrived at Brandeis. I noticed that my “to-the-tee” observance of halacha according to Conservative standards looked a lot more like the left-wing Modern Orthodox practices of my friends. I was a radical, right wing Conservative (still capitalized) Jew, questioning my beliefs on the importance of egalitarianism and the flaky, wavering nature of the Conservative community as a whole (more specifically, the discrepancy between the actual ritual observance and theoretical observance). I felt that I unquestionably fit under the dati-leumi (national-religous) umbrella, and that I no longer had any sort of responsibility to save the essentially failing Conservative movement. I honestly can’t say all that much has changed significantly, but I’ve gained a new perspective.
At Ramah this summer, my campers were afforded the opportunity to make the decision between praying in an egalitarian or non-egalitarian minyan. Knowing that Ramah Berkshires frowns upon the lingering non-egalitarian aspects left at camp decades after the Conservative movement has started to ordain women rabbis, I took a non-confrontational approach and complacently went to the egalitarian minyan. Even though my campers questioned their own choices, I kept my decision to myself. I was the first girl to lead Ma’ariv for Shabbat at camp in 2009, and the change in myself is nearly astonishing. And yet there is a certain indulgence in going with the flow and doing what you see fit in the moment.
At school, I still feel enormously comfortable in the Orthodox minyan and community. Going into the school year, I knew I was one of the coordinators of the Shira Hadasha-Partnership Minyan (a feminist, quasi-egalitarian compromise within the confines of traditional halacha and the Orthodox community). Aside from the reputation of a simply gloriously beautiful, spiritual and musical davening experience, I do firmly stand with the values of the Partnership movement and find myself most comfortable knowing that women are counted in the minyan and can participate, yet women’s participation cannot stand alone without an equal male presence. One of the troubles inextricably tied to any egalitarian minyan I’ve ever participated in is the disproportionate female participation and the near ostrasizing of men. This is truly a bizarre concept.
Nevertheless, I got to school expecting to fall into the positions I had been given and or established for myself, not questioning much at all. I am a person who needs to be in a constant state of cognitive dissonance, yet oftentimes being in leadership positions can elude a person of the opportunity to reframe and reevaluate a status quo.
On the first week of school, while having coffee with a friend of mine who was essentially handing over the torch of the Shira Hadasha minyan, I was introduced to the potential and nearly actualized idea of having an independent, vibrant, and traditional egalitarian minyan on campus. So if you think like me and have the Jewish community outlined on a concrete spectrum of sorts (shout-out to former NEJS 164-Soc. students), visualize this concept as culturally between Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism, and halakhically between Conservative Judaism and the previously mentioned Partnership Movement. For all of my New Yorkers out there (or Upper West Side wannabes), think Mechon Hadar. My initial outward reaction to this friend was along the lines of “I’ll definitely consider it. I”ll come to a meeting or two and feel it out.” What I was actually thinking was “…meh. I’m settled. Why complicate things?”
And just like that, we can fast forward two months to where I stand now. The independent community, which came to be known as Kehillat Sha’ar, has become an important project to me. I need this space to dabble with the world of progressive Judaism in a safe space, with people who are just as invested and or confused. Different people in different areas of the Jewish community at Brandeis and beyond may be skeptical of the need or potential consequences of the emergence of communities like this, but it has been truly incredible to note how many people from vastly different backgrounds can find themselves comfortable within this amalgam of traditions.
In addition to the religious ideological whirlwind you just caught wind of right now, I also have found myself revisiting my views on Israel, regarding both the conflict and domestic issues. I can’t say that “I’ve found myself” there as if it’s a totally passive process, but I can settle for a calling it a partially passive process. This year in addition to all of the other shenanigans I’m involved with on campus, I’m also in the leadership of bVIEW, Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World, which is the non-partisan Israel discussion group on campus, aiming at depolarizing discourse for a more productive and less antagonistic result. Naturally, we make it our business to really take part in Israel activism on campus in all forms, and as a result, at my first meeting at the end of the spring semester, one of the members of the board made a serious push for attendance at the J Street Conference in the fall. I was not really able to look that far in advance, but I also had no interest whatsoever in attending an event of an organization that I knew near-nothing about and had perceived to be practically dangerous for the future of Israel. Classic day school kid reaction. When I came back to school in the fall, it became essentially the talk of the Israel activism community. So in the end, I decided I would go to the J Street Conference and miss a day of school to learn things I didn’t know much about. Honestly, you can’t judge someone or something until you’ve actually been exposed to what it’s really about. And I definitely jumped in head first.
(*Ironic side-note: During my senior year of high school I went to Brandeis Admitted Students Day instead of hearing the J Street representative at the Heschel Senior Seminar on Israel. I love coming full circle.)
I must say that I thought I was going to be upset by things that I heard at the conference, but I was relatively at ease with a majority of what I heard. I journaled throughout the conference, detailing what I thought of every single speaker and conversation I had-I’ll spare you mostly because I trust you’ll ask me in person if you’re actually curious (you are really cordially invited and encouraged to ask) but also because you’ve already been subject to a bulk of my prolific post and you deserve a break. I can, however, attest to the fact that the organization as a whole spans a huge spectrum of standpoints on the issues at hand, and it wouldn’t be fair to put all J-Streeters in a box. At the end of the day, I resonated with (on even a deeper level than I expected) with the zeal the participants had for peace in Israel, and a sustainable solution for what seems to be a stalemate in negotiations. And as a self defining left-leaning moderate, I don’t think I’d fit into that box. And that wouldn’t be fair either.
I’ll admit that it was concerning that many of the people I engaged with at the conference were so focused on the conflict and a viable two-state solution, as well as redeeming the reputation of J Street at their universities and within the Hillel umbrella as a whole that they were unlikely to tend to the looming domestic issues in Israel proper. And this isn’t just a J Street issue. This is widespread throughout the diaspora. Even people falling off of the right edge of the political spectrum can’t necessarily tell you all that much about housing costs, illegal immigration, the education system, the army draft, etc. My question in response to this information gap is twofold. First of all, if you’re like me and hope to one day live in Israel (proper, of course), wouldn’t you also be taken to issues that will really affect your life once you get there? And secondly (my bVIEW hat has officially been donned for this one), wouldn’t it be more practical if some of the political zest and energy towards the conflict were shared with the internal issues since internal peace creates a more united front towards external peace? Feel free to disagree, and at times I may as well, but we should at least be open to that option. I’m also sensing that I should take the class called “Inner Peace, Outer Peace” next semester before I get ahead of myself, and possibly reconsider a minor in Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies. Or not really. But it’s back on the table.
So at the end of the day, and this excessively essay-like post, I’ll confess that I’ve taken the time to put this together because I’ve been asked tons of questions regarding the (seemingly many) moderately contentious things I’ve taken part in thus far this semester and I needed an outlet to really outline what I’ve been thinking. The punchline is simply that we all need to understand the value of educated experimentation-and by that I mean that we’re all entitled to question and give substantial thought to all of the various things we do. We should do our best to rise above some of the labels we create for ourselves and each other. We don’t all fit into boxes. Humans are incredibly complex (I know this isn’t news).
I’m also glad that you’ve now received shock-exposure to my psyche-especially if you’ve never read any of my posts before. On that note, thanks for being incredible listeners and feel free to comment as you please. I also promise that my next post will be a little less heavy. Ok, no promises, but I at least intend for it to be that way because for now my humor is reserved for the people who are right next to me and get to experience a flustered, overtired and sarcastic Hannah as you have had the privilege of hearing previously. And sharing is caring.
Bye for now and keep reading! Wishing you all the best!
Hannah Zahava Kober