When I entered college, I enjoyed a level of freedom I had not yet experienced. I could attend services if I wanted. I could keep Shabbat when I wanted. I could go to synagogue without having to answer questions from friends and family, answers I may not be able to articulate even to this day.
My liberal arts college’s motto, Unto the whole person, really spoke to me and guided me on my educational path. I sat with my fellow freshman in a lecture hall for the required course Journeys. We read from the Qur’an, the Gospel, and seminal scientific, literary, and sociological works. After reading portions of the Qur’an, I decided to take a course on Islam the second semester of my freshman year. Part of it was to better understand the political developments in a post-9/11 world, but the real reason was to come to know Islam so well that I would be certain of my desire to convert to Judaism. The class changed my view about the Western World’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage and captivated my mind with beautiful conceptions of G-d and the level of individual devotion required by each Muslim. Yet, as much as I loved the religion I studied, I realized I could not embrace the cultures associated with it, and thus that I could never take Shahada.
The next year, I enrolled in Religions in a Global Context with the same Buddhist-Methodist professor. I was surrounded by classmates who grew up in small Southern towns in Christian families. Some accepted the faith they were raised in as their own and practiced it with pride; the vast majority rejected Abrahamic faiths for being patriarchal, authoritarian, and materialistic. I listened with increasing rage as they labeled Judaism an arcane system of arbitrary laws established by an authoritarian elite. Eventually, logic returned to me—of course there is not a faith that will meet the needs of every person on earth—and I came to realize that my appreciation for the mitzvot, for the clearly demarcated ideas of positive and negative behaviors set me apart from my peers who preferred the more ambiguous nature of some Eastern philosophies.
The final project in the course was to write a religious credo that helped me articulate my self-conception as an attenuated theist who loved the idea of predicate theology I encountered in Reconstructionist texts. I explained my love of the Jewish approach to the Torah: active, participatory, almost antagonistic in its love of tearing down the text to build up meaning and commentary through stories and debates. The contradictions are not troublesome because they invite discussion and argument during which agreement is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Torah is about us, in each age and generation, and making sense of the world and what role G-d plays or does not play in it. The emphasis on the process of interaction, of interpreting, of questioning never resulted in Judaism arrogantly assuming it maintained a monopoly on Truth. Judaism’s lack of pressure is precisely why I feel comfortable exploring, questioning, and seeking. That it provided clear cut answers on many topics yet refrained from answering all of life’s questions appealed to me because not all of the work was done for me. Instead, it fans the hidden spark of my mind and my soul.
As a Spanish and International Relations major, I chose Argentina as my study abroad site for its status as a melting pot society. They absorbed immigrants from all over the world and built a cohesive national identity—as long as you weren’t Jewish. In the summer of 2006, I sat in classrooms where my Argentine classmates said that the Jews who died in AMIA were not considered Argentine in their eyes, and thus there was no need to mourn their loss on the anniversary of the attacks or to pursue justice for their deaths after the disastrous mishandling of the case by the Argentine authorities. I watched my host mother’s best friend, a descendant of Lebanese Christians, launch anti-Semitic tirades inside the apartment I lived in, while conveniently claiming to be Jewish while in the car to avoid street panhandlers selling Catholic trinkets. I watched classmates cheer when Israelis died during the Lebanon war. I struggled to find my voice, to answer the call of G-d, publicly, for the first time. Who am I to speak for this people, when I’m still an outsider wanting in? Who am I to defend this people, who have survived through much worse for four millennia?
A trip to the Jewish barrio of Buenos Aires, Once, gave me courage. A kosher McDonalds and two-foot-tall mezuzot showed me Jews were part of Argentine society, regardless of ignorance and hatred on the part of its citizens. Travelling to Peru on spring break, I struggled to breathe in the high altitudes and upon seeing my Magen David necklace, a group of Israelis got up from café chairs to help me schlep up the hill.
And weeks later, I remember a classmate turning to me one day on the bus ride home, asking in a disparaging tone of voice with a snarled lip if I thought another bus rider was a Jew. It took all of two seconds for “I don’t know if he is, but I DO know that I am Jewish” to come flying out of my mouth.
G-d called. G-d had been calling. And in Argentina, on my own, away from my family and friends and the identity that I assumed in their presence, I finally found the courage to answer.
I know I am Jewish because the Jewish religion is still the most reliable source of ethical and moral values in the Western World. Because Judaism compels us to reconfigure the loneliness of exile and Otherness into the struggle for truth and justice. Because our identity gives us strength to do what is right and important for the sake of the rest of the world. Because Judaism understands that words can wound, can maim, and can kill. Because Judaism affirms that women have a role in this tradition, and that it was the righteousness of women that led to our liberation from Egypt. Because Judaism is not governed by any hierarchy imposed by G-d and that we can all communicate directly with the Holy. Because our G-d cares what people do and rewards and punishes people as an expression of divine care. Because doing as we are commanded is the fire test of our strength. Because the toughmindedness of the Jewish tradition provides us with a vehicle to confront the challenges of life, fueling our perennial quest for perfection. Because we audaciously propel ourselves toward a future conceived with the tremendous faith it takes to believe in the possibility of a new Genesis. Because we are G-d’s partners—equal, worthy, and competent—in building a just world, not because it is the nice thing to do but rather our G-d-given obligation to actively live and participate in the world around us.