Everyone’s different. I think what did it for me was really getting to know my professors. I was spending time and money on the pursuit of knowledge, led by individuals at the pinnacle of their respective fields. Part of my job as a student was to look up to these men and women and aspire to emulate their ways of thinking.
For the most part, I found my professor’s characters to be fairly flawed. In class, many of these professors exuded arrogance, but in their office hours, my questions would often be answered with hints of hesitation and fear, as though they might not know the right answer or could slip and say something upsetting.
My go-to example is one professor who complained in the middle of class about the lack of love his wife gives him. This very same professor would spend hours on the phone with me in the middle of the night, reading over sources I should include in my next essay. How could dozens of professors, acclaimed masters in thought, be so empty? This reflection extended to other, real mentors in my life. Rich or poor, no one seemed to be happy. The poor were sad, and the wealthy were deprived. The comedians were dark, and too many characters were the same.
During my year at UCLA, I found myself spending countless nights at school events, fraternity parties and other activities. On paper, I should have felt great: I was doing well in school, had a vibrant social life and was getting involved in all sorts of meaningful on-campus activities (Students Supporting Israel, Ha’Am and a few others). I was even working for an international organization and interning with a U.S. senator. But that wasn’t enough. Although my circumstances changed, I didn’t. No matter the acclaim or the position, I was still the same guy I was a year ago — for better or for worse. There was no way I could imagine raising my future children to be justifiably happy people if I myself wasn’t. How could I instill in them morals, ethics and ideals if I was still unsure about my own?
In the beginning of winter quarter, because of a kickoff barbeque, I started to become involved with UCLA’s Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM). I found myself at JAM because, at the end of the day, I had much more in common with Jews than I did with most non-Jews, and I loved the feeling of JAM’s tightknit community.
Being raised by Israeli parents, my affiliation with Judaism was primarily cultural and slightly hypothetical. Even though I had a large family in Israel and my mother had recently become a Ba’al Teshuva, my love of Judaism was an offshoot of my affinity towards Israel. I viewed Torah Jewry as an indigenous claim, which I, myself, was too good for, and I appreciated Torah Jews the same way I’d view my favorite animal at the zoo.
During my year at UCLA, I began putting a face to the name of Judaism. My preconceptions about Judaism were challenged at every level. People who were wiser and smarter than me (e.g. the Hanflings) gave lectures about Jewish values and religion. I eventually joined a Talmud class on Tuesday nights and was exposed to a certain concrete form of value-driven logic that put me face-to-face with truths my philosophy courses taught me did not exist. I was also introduced to Jews who were doing what I had seen to be impossible: living successful, pleasure filled lives while at the same time waking up for Shacharit — morning prayer services — and keeping Shabbat. After a few months of long nights at JAM, I realized that I was out of excuses to not explore this lifestyle.
Around February, JAM took a handful of active guys to New York City for an Ohr Sameach Shabbaton with the promises of a ski trip. We stayed with Torah observant families in a suburb of Brooklyn and travelled around to different areas within NYC and New Jersey. It was on that trip that I got to experience many new and exciting aspects of Judaism that I’d only heard about on Wikipedia — and partially at home with my Ba’al Teshuva mother and traditional father. In a community that I was so sure was devoid of any real pleasure, for the first time in a long time I was able to observe real, authentic, sustainable pleasure.
No matter where they went to school (UPenn or YU), the role they held at their company (accountant or financial advisor), or their salaries, it was obvious to me that their meaning was not derived from their work.
Surrounded by Rabbis, I asked question after question, trying to stump them or corner them. But one after another, all my questions were answered to my (dis)satisfaction. Later on, a friend of mine from UCLA also began asking questions. I told him to stop asking or he’d become another religious Jew (he’s wearing headphones and drinking water five feet away from me right now at my Yeshiva). I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, so I became even more active with Jewish groups on my campus. I constantly tried to learn more — or at least ask a question that would stifle my belief in Judaism, thus letting me live my life as I used to: with my own interpretations of morals, ethics and happiness based off whatever I’d pick up off experience and perhaps a Wall Street Journal article.
As I became increasingly involved in the Jewish community on campus, more and more of my questions were answered. Due to unique circumstances, a week after the New York trip, I had already decided that I would attend Machon Yaakov, a Yeshiva in Israel, the following year. But it was sometime around early June that I decided that I no longer wanted to be just a beginner in my Judaism; I wanted to stop watching from the outside. I wanted to stop being the guy who would come to JLIC Shacharit without understanding the prayers.
It has now been almost three months since I’ve flown from LA to my new home in Har Nof, a largely American-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. I was hesitant about leaping into this experience because I did not want to put my life on hold for a year. But now, those doubts couldn’t be farther from my mind. That special conversation that I would have once every other week at UCLA, I now have ten times a day. I’m surrounded by some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Every day, I get to engage with brilliant Rabbis who are the same person both in public and in private. They are confident enough to have neither fear nor hesitation when posed with questions. A dozen Rabbis pay attention to me as though God literally created me by hand and lead classes besting the best of TED talks.
From when I wake to the time I sleep, I am surrounded by 28 brilliant people who could collectively be doing twenty-eight thousand different things this year, several of whom are slowly becoming my best friends, and all of whom I feel like I could trust with almost anything. These students represent the best of their campuses: those with the best characters, independent thinkers, those with unreserved wit, musicians, athletes and uninhibited geniuses. I find many of them learning the most abstract Jewish law on their free time, not for the sake of an exam or to avoid God’s condemnation; rather, they learn for the sake of learning. I find it shocking that a concept of Yeshiva cannot found in the secular world. Beyond its religious context, Yeshiva gives me a year to flush out my beliefs, my morals, ethics, ideals and even who I am and why I am on earth — things that most people struggle with throughout their lives. I am also learning how to learn distraction free. Coming into Yeshiva, I was worried that I would be changed. In Yeshiva, I see that I am only being refined.
As of now, I am still at the beginning of my journey of questions. But thankfully, I’m at a place that requires me to explore.