I was raised in a Conservative Jewish household. My family and I attended services on a rather regular basis at our local synagogue, Congregation Beth Am of San Diego, and had Shabbat dinners on most Friday nights. Though I was not shomer Shabbat, my family observed the holidays the best that they could could, from having a Sukkah in the backyard to going to Seders on Passover to lighting Hanukkah candles. My two siblings and I went to Camp Ramah, a Conservative sleep-away camp in Ojai, every summer, and I also worked there for several years.
After my camp experience, I became very involved in the Conservative movement’s youth group, United Synagogue Youth (USY), both at my synagogue and at the regional level. I served as the religion/education chair for my chapter, leading and coordinating Friday night services and other religious activities. I received the Ahavat Torah award my senior year in high school for all of my help at the regional level, specifically for helping increase student participation in religious activities.
Yet today I am the president of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at UCLA, a group focused on meeting the needs of Orthodox and traditional Jewish students on campus. While I no longer consider myself Conservative, I also do not consider myself Orthodox. What happened to lead me to this middle state, which some call “Conservadox”?
When I arrived at UCLA, I wasn’t sure how my Judaism would play a part in my college experience. Though it had played such a big part in my life so far, I didn’t know what the Jewish community on campus would be like and how I would fit into it.
I had always planned on going to Shabbat dinners, so my first couple of weeks on campus, I tried out the two different services offered at Hillel: the liberal, egalitarian service and the Modern Orthodox service. The Modern Orthodox service spoke to me most.
True, it had a mechitza — or partition — separating the sexes, which I was not accustomed to. However, the prayers sung were the same ones that I had heard in camp, and the service leaders made sure to include every prayer.
At these services, I reconnected with Brad Widawer, who had also been involved in USY and Camp Ramah before joining the Modern Orthodox community at UCLA. As I came week after week, I also met Naomi Esserman, a fellow engineering student and the co-president of JLIC. She later introduced me to other members of the community, including Gil Bar-Or, a fellow computer science major. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan of JLIC welcomed me into the community with open arms, not caring that I did not come from an Orthodox background but only wanting to meet my needs. I felt such a strong sense of belonging as I met more people in the community.
As the quarter progressed, I began attending more JLIC events, coming to Saturday morning services and eventually joining the minyan carpool for morning services every day at Hillel.
You might be wondering: what spoke to me about Orthodox Judaism that drew me away from full-fledged Conservatism? In short, Orthodox Judaism offered me what I thought Judaism should have been.
When I attended regional USY events, I kept Shabbat and participated fully in the Shabbat experience. However, when I came home to my Conservative synagogue, not many people kept Shabbat, and there were no afternoon Shabbat prayer services or havdallah services offered. I did not feel the same sense of community that I had found in my youth group.
I felt disconnected from the Judaism practiced at home and in my community and sought the sort of Judaism I sensed during my time away with my youth group. I wanted to observe Shabbat, singing zmirot or hymns after Friday night dinner and engaging in intellectual discussions about Judaism and life.
And yet, there was little opportunity to do so. There were times when my synagogue at home did not have lunch on Saturday or did not conclude lunch with singing. Friday night services were poorly attended and did not move me as did the services offered by Camp Ramah and USY.
When I came to UCLA, I found a community that prayed Mincha every Shabbat afternoon after lunch and sponsored Seudah Slishit — or a third meal — with Havdallah services in the evenings. There were Jewish Bruins who joined together to sing after lunch on Saturdays and after dinner on Friday nights. I found fellow students who fully kept Shabbat and spent the entire day together as a community. Shabbat became my favorite part of the week because the work restrictions that came with it created a community — it bound us together for 25 hours and motivated me to increase my interactions and connections with other people. Shabbat became a way to relax from the hectic daily life at UCLA.
As I grew more comfortable, I started attending other events hosted by JLIC and found another aspect of Modern Orthodoxy I enjoyed: learning. Never before had I studied pages of Talmud. Each rabbi who lectured during JLIC’s weekly Parsha and Pizza event made me ponder Judaism and the world. I had great discussions with my Orthodox peers about everything from the nature of God, to reconciling the Torah with science, to artificial intelligence.
I felt a deep desire to continue learning and exploring my connection with Judaism as I never had before. As I entered my sophomore year, I became the gabbai — or sexton — of JLIC, assigning honors during services and helping with other JLIC activities. I found myself wanting to give back to this community that had given me a new perspective on Judaism and life.
So, if JLIC spoke to me so greatly, why do I still refer to myself as “Conservadox”? I still maintain fundamental disagreements with Modern Orthodoxy that do not permit me to fully follow its ideology.
For one, I believe in an egalitarian form of Judaism. I believe that women should be allowed to wear tefillin and participate fully in religious rituals. I can never find full comfort in a place that does not allow women to read Torah or lead services. At the same time, I want to be part of a community that fully embraces the tradition of Judaism, a community focused on learning. I want to be with others who fully participate in the holidays and observe Shabbat. My Judaism embraces modernity while remaining rooted in the traditions of the past.
While Modern Orthodoxy does a good job of embracing the present, there are certain aspects of it that refuse to enter the modern world. However, I also see Conservative Judaism as being too lax with regard to the Jewish tradition, changing things that have been Jewish law and custom for thousands of years in order to please members of the movement. Sometimes changes seem necessary to meet the needs of a modern community, but sometimes this tactic fails.
Take the act of driving on Shabbat, for example. Although I have come to appreciate the restrictions of Shabbat, I have also experienced times when other matters take precedence over them. In modern times, people sometimes cannot afford houses within walking distance of their preferred synagogue. Additionally, families are much more spread out, no longer all within walking distance of one another. Especially in cases when extended families have relatives that are not observant, not driving hinders coming together as a family. When driving allows me to be with family or go to a synagogue instead of staying at home all day, I find myself willing to break Shabbat by getting in the car. At the same time, however, once Conservative Judaism legitimized driving on Shabbat, people eventually began to use that approval to drive for reasons other than for the sake of enjoying Shabbat. By extension, the potential for a strong community to be bound together for 25 hours was destroyed.
Currently, my religious identity is floating somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. My Conservative background bolsters rather than hinders my presidency at JLIC. As I continue my college career, I will continue to explore my Judaism and try to figure out where I fit.
Right now, I see the good in both religious communities, as there are aspects of both movements that I enjoy and appreciate. I doubt that I will end up fully on either side, as I cannot commit myself to either belief system. But, eventually, I suppose I will have to choose. I hope that my remaining two years at UCLA will be as educational and uplifting as my initial two years on campus and that my journey of religious self-discovery will continue to be meaningful and revealing.