Growing up, I was always fascinated by the diversity of Judaism. I loved the idea that the religion was portable and adaptable; that each person could make it his or her own, yet feel one hundred percent assured of the fact that he or she was a link in the intricate chain of the Jewish people. How are we able to be so deeply connected with one another, yet share such different beliefs and interpretations of the same values and ideals?
In order to better understand the diversity of Judaism on campus and what it means to be Jewish at UCLA, I interviewed those who know it best: the leading Jewish Humans of UCLA.
The mission of Hillel at UCLA is to “enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” Without committing itself to any one denomination, Hillel champions the pluralistic approach to Judaism. Hillel prides itself on offering Jewish Bruins of all walks of life a “collective Jewish experience.” Rabbi Chaim said, “Our role is to open Jewish students up to the possibility that there are a variety of ways in which to express their Jewishness, in hope that they will be able to embrace a rich, Jewish life. And to give students the capacity to be able to understand and articulate, in a world of choice where they no longer must be Jewish, why they should choose to be Jewish.”
Natalie Charney, Hillel student president, says she believes her role at Hillel is to be that of a “connector,” saying, “I aim to spark curiosity amongst Jewish students to explore the different facets of what Judaism means to that individual. I aim to connect Jewish students to other Jewish students to create a more welcoming Jewish community. I hope that through connection, I can help to further empower Jewish students here at UCLA.”
Also housed in the Hillel House is the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, or “JLIC” for short. According to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, the goal of JLIC is to “demonstrate the reciprocally-enriching nature of university academics and true Torah living — through teaching, modeling and constructive conversations.” JLIC works within Hillel to “enable [Hillel] to better serve the Orthodox populations on campus.” Rabbi Kaplan believes the two more important facets of Orthodox Judaism to be “the binding nature of Talmudic law as seen through the Halachik authority of Orthodox Rabbis” and “loyalty and fidelity to text and tradition.”
Naomi Esserman, a student leader of JLIC, believes that her job is to spread awareness and engage students of the learning opportunities available through Hillel and JLIC. “Many students don’t realize how many classes are happening on a weekly basis at Hillel, and I try to help make students more aware of these incredible opportunities.”
Chabad at UCLA aims to provide all Jewish students with “social, educational, recreational and spiritual programming.” In its mission, Chabad makes clear that “all Jews are welcome, regardless of affiliation, denomination, or level of observance.” Chabad seeks to provide students with a “comfortable, home-like setting” where they can socialize, “question [their] faith without fear of judgment,” and where every student can find a “friend to lean on.” Rebbetzin Elisa Gurevich says she feels her “role as an Orthodox Jew is to represent the Torah way of life and its inherent beauty to the best of [her] ability, to be a resource for those with questions about Judaism, and to be available for members of the Jewish community when they are in need physically or spiritually.”
Student president Emmanuelle Hodara says, “Chabad is meant for students of all backgrounds, secular and religious…most of our students are actually not religious, but they are here because they feel connected to Judaism somehow and they either want to learn or be in a Jewish environment.”
Jewish Awareness Movement, or “JAM” for short, is an off-campus club with the goal of “providing a framework for young Jews to meet each other, be inspired about their Judaism, and explore their heritage.” Rabbi Jacob Rupp believes that “[his] job, specifically, in terms of [his] capacity at JAM, is to teach” and “to be a resource for Jewish students for whatever they want,” saying, “I utilize the Jewish schooling that I have to put a Jewish spin on whatever I do teach.”
Student president Michael Basin believes it is important “to be able to go to various Jewish organizations on campus to meet new people and participate in different activities because each organization provides a unique Jewish experience. JAM, as an organization, wants to be another tool for students to connect to Judaism and is supportive of all organizations because in the end, the goal is the same, a fantastic Jewish experience.”
So how do these groups all fit into the intricate puzzle that is the Jewish college experience? Rabbi Kaplan believes that “each organization is critical in contributing to the rich mosaic of Jewish Bruin life that UCLA is blessed with.”
Orthodox rabbi and Jewish-American scholar, Rabbi Irving Yitz Greenberg, said, “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.” What did Rabbi Greenberg mean by this?
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan of JLIC responded, “it doesn’t resonate with me at all…I believe people should be passionate, proud and own such a critically defying part of their lives.”
Hodara of Chabad said, “I grew up in a traditional home and never really felt a sense of a belonging for any single denomination. Thus, I never really felt embarrassed by belonging to a group that did not exactly align with my philosophy and practice of Judaism. I think Chabad at UCLA is a bit like this – students with no distinct denominational affiliations who are here to adopt the ‘good’ that they can find.”
Charney said, “I’m not quite sure by what he means for ‘embarrassed,’ but I think it is a necessary introspective act to probe into one’s own identity, religion, and denomination. Curiosity, questioning, and even criticism of the ideas and beliefs that one holds provides a stronger foundational basis and ultimately a greater understanding.”
Basin responded that, “you shouldn’t be restricted by a single denomination because the point of Judaism is spiritual growth… By saying you’re part of a single group, you’re not allowing yourself to open your mind to more and develop yourself, and therefore should be embarrassed by it.”
Rabbi Rupp responded saying, “I don’t like people who are apologetic for their beliefs, because if they are apologetic for their beliefs, they shouldn’t have them.” He added that he “do[es] care what denomination you belong to because denominations in Judaism, from a traditional, historical and philosophical standpoint, aren’t things you just arrive at. You have to know why you’re part of it…people are so quick to jump into a category and not have any idea what the category says… As soon as you fall into [one], you think you are exempt from thinking. Across the board, [he] think[s] labels are completely destructive; they divide.”
While the quote didn’t leave a lasting impression on Esserman, she responded by saying, “as a Jewish leader on campus, I feel it is important to be involved in all aspects of Jewish life on campus… Unity among all the different Jewish groups on campus is vital to a strong community.”
Rebbetzin Gurevich said, “I really, strongly disagree with this quote. If someone is a member of a group or denomination, he or she should be aware of and comfortable with the tenets of that group. This is not to say that individual members of the group should be immune to criticism, or that unacceptable behavior from adherents should be overlooked, but that the basic philosophy and world view of the denomination to which you adhere should be in sync with your personal values.”
And lastly, Rabbi Chaim said, “People who grow up with a particular vision, a particular tradition, and a particular denomination or commitment [should] recognize that they can learn something from people who grew up with another perspective.” He then added,“I want to be open to others because in my openness I sometimes can learn something [from them], and hopefully they’re open so that they might learn something from me, as well. But if I just keep to myself… that becomes self-cycling and it diminishes the capacity for renewal. In order to have renewal and for new ideas to take place, I have to hear the critique, the reaction, the response, the other perspective that enriches my own understanding.”
We are united in our differences. The Jewish community at UCLA is blessed by its diversity. The endless flow of resources and opportunities offered to and by the Jewish community at UCLA is endless. While each of us has a certain community that makes us feel most at home, it is important that we take the opportunity to step outside of our comfort zones and try new things in the hopes of better understanding our Jewish identities. So if you’re a “Hillel person,” check out Chabad! If you’re doing the Maimonides program this year, try out the Sinai Scholars program next! Take the time to sit down with other Jewish students, ask each other the difficult questions. Each of these interactions, each experience, each exchange helps us better understand ourselves in relation to our Jewish identities, and in turn, helps us find a better understanding of ourselves.