When he delivered his essay Kol Dodi Dofek to an audience of American Jews on the eighth anniversary of Yom Ha’atzmaut in 1956, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik formulated his vision of post-1948 religious Zionism by referencing the terrors of Treblinka, Majdanek, and Buchenwald.
If he were alive today to make a similar address, one might wonder: would Rav Soloveitchik have mentioned the massacre at Re’im on October 7th, the atrocities in Southern Israel that day, or even the frightening global surge of anti-Semitism currently tormenting the Jewish world?
I first read Kol Dodi Dofek — in English, “listen, my beloved knocks” — during what now feels like a bygone era — the beginning of my freshman year of college in the fall of 2021. Two years later, as Jewish college students are grappling with vastly different campus climates, I find myself revisiting and reflecting on Kol Dodi Dofek’s core messages.
An idea from Kol Dodi Dofek that fascinated me, and admittedly also one that I couldn’t fully understand back then, was Rav Soloveitchik’s conceptualization of the two distinct covenants made between God and Bnei Yisrael in the Torah. Together, the ‘Covenant of Fate’ (Exodus 6:7) and the ‘Covenant of Destiny’ (Exodus 24:7-8) dually characterize the Jewish historical experience.
The Covenant of Fate, according to Rav Soloveitchik, is inextricably linked to Bnei Yisrael’s shared experience of slavery in Egypt. Defined by its passive and involuntary “existence of compulsion,” the Covenant of Fate — known in Hebrew as the brit goral — wields forces that inexorably tether Jewish individuals to a single, collective fate.
In contrast, the Covenant of Destiny constitutes a rebellion against fate and its “as-is,” factual existence. Exemplified by the covenant established between God and Bnei Yisroel on Mount Sinai, the Covenant of Destiny — in Hebrew, the brit yi’ud — is characterized by conscious free will, active empowerment, and meaningful confrontation with the external world.
For most of my upbringing, I now realize that I have primarily related to and experienced the latter — the Covenant of Destiny. Thus, I can understand the brit yi’ud both intellectually and intuitively. After all, that was the framework in which I was taught what it means to be Jewish.
Growing up, I attended Jewish day schools founded by resolute Holocaust survivors who endeavored to rebuild Jewish life in the wake of the devastation of the Shoah. When I was younger, I was placed into favorable environments that supported and embraced me, and that nurtured my development and my yiddishkeit.
Before starting college, I had the special opportunity to embark on a gap year in Israel to study Torah and explore the land. Even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I became a beneficiary of one of the greatest developments in all of Jewish history: Am Yisrael restoring Jewish sovereignty to its ancestral home, and subsequently redeeming the Land of Israel in extraordinary ways.
As we grew up, my generation, I now realize, was shaped by Rav Soloveitchik’s Covenant of Destiny. We were inspired to think big, to take on challenges, to be involved in our communities, and to utilize a growth mindset. We have been taught to persevere through obstacles; we’ve embraced Theodor Herzl’s maxim “If you will it, it is no dream.”
But what contact did we have with the Covenant of Fate, the flip side of the Jewish historical experience? While I may have comprehended Rav Soloveitchik’s idea in an abstract sense, I couldn’t resonate with the Covenant of Fate, nor was I able to internalize what he meant by it.
After October 7, 2023, for thousands of Jewish college students nationwide, the Covenant of Fate has found its expression on our campuses. This reality was imposed upon us three months ago, when Hamas terrorists launched a surprise assault on the State of Israel, subsequently generating a tidal wave of anti-Semitism now epicentered in universities.
Since then, as Jewish students, we have found ourselves subject to strange, intense, and even inexplicable forces. We feel alienated, ostracized, and different. In our hostile campus environments, it’s as if we can feel the weight of Jewish history on our shoulders each day.
At UCLA, my university, such feelings of isolation and estrangement are a collective sentiment among all Jewish students. It doesn’t matter if you attended Jewish school growing up, what denomination you belong to, or whether you choose to go to Chabad or Hillel for Shabbat dinner. As Jews, we are all experiencing this shared fate.
This academic year, Jewish students have learned one lesson for certain: Jewish identity is qualitatively distinct from any other religious, ethnic, or cultural affiliation. Even though we attend institutions renowned for their commitments to diversity and inclusion, Jewish students have been largely excluded from these protections.
In recent weeks, Jewish students watched as the leaders of Harvard, MIT, and Penn testified on Capitol Hill that the harassment of Jews, or even calls for our genocide, must be interpreted with appropriate context. We were told by university administrators that, from a disciplinary perspective, hateful speech against Jews is only considered problematic once it morphs into action.
Such developments are not limited to a handful of schools. At UCLA, those claiming to support and represent a diverse student body have, nevertheless, left many Jewish students feeling voiceless and betrayed. Consequently, Jews on campus cast doubt on the backing of our putative allies; we wonder who really stands with us in our time of greatest need.
In this difficult time, we have become increasingly aware of our vulnerability and solitude as Jews. On campus, the existential phenomenon of Jewish separateness now affects us quite acutely. Rather than subjects empowered to act, we perceive ourselves more as objects bound to an external fate.
We’ve been enveloped, against our wills, by Rav Soloveitchik’s Covenant of Fate.
This is despite all of our best efforts. For so long, Jewish students have demonstrated a steadfast willingness to integrate into the school community and to participate in campus life. Bruins among Bruins, Jews are, of course, students, teammates, coworkers, faculty, and even student government officers at UCLA.
Yet, regardless of our intentions or actions, the events following October 7th have reinforced a timeless truth for Jewish students: we cannot escape our core identity. In times like these, perhaps especially so, we have learned that we are unable to elude the grip of the Covenant of Fate.
It is, indeed, a challenging but also, I believe, an extraordinary time to be a Jewish college student. Almost overnight, students like myself were confronted with an unprecedented set of challenges that few of us were prepared for. In antagonistic campus atmospheres with surging anti-Semitism, we endured the Covenant of Fate and grappled with its implications.
But, as I reflect more, I’ve also come to the unique realization that, this past fall, I had genuine religious experiences on campus. Granted, they were qualitatively different from any experiences I had when I was growing up.
During the fall, rather than in warm, comfortable, and nurturing classroom environments, I learned about what it means to be Jewish in the tempest-tossed university corridors and communal spaces. And I didn’t seek out these lessons; instead, I was taught them involuntarily.
On campus, I was taught lessons that many of my ancestors were compelled to internalize only a few generations ago. I faced some of the same challenges that they tried to overcome and defeat, in the hopes that their descendants would be spared of them.
On campus, I received a glimpse of the adversity, prejudice, and enmity that has been woven into the tapestry of Jewish history. I witnessed classic anti-Semitism’s mutation into new, modern variants. Thousands of years later, I relate to the Psalmist’s lament: “O Lord! My foes are so many! Many are those who rise up against me.”
Through these experiences, I’ve learned that being Jewish encompasses moments of both connection and of separateness. Furthermore, Jews navigate a dual commitment: while we have agency as subjects, that agency can be instantly stripped of us, leaving us as objects of fate. Sometimes being Jewish involves climbing the metaphorical mountain of God; other times, it may entail descending through the valley of darkness.
Ultimately, as Rav Soloveitchik says, being Jewish means enduring both the Covenant of Fate and the Covenant of Destiny.
Since October 7th, Jewish college students like myself have navigated their connection to Judaism under arduous and unfamiliar circumstances. Yet, in the process, we have gained a much fuller perspective of who we are, and what we stand for.
Jewish students, in recent weeks, have chosen to deepen our connections to the very identity being denied to us. And while the journey hasn’t been without its share of difficulties, we have opted, so far, to infuse it with meaning and purpose.
These, I’m sure, are experiences and lessons that Jewish students will take with them well beyond the time they graduate from college. I know that I will.
Pictured: Alex Rubel (author) and his friend at the Bruins for Israel rally on November 7, which was hosted to honor the victims of the October 7 terror attacks, stand against antisemitism, and call for the release of those taken hostage by Hamas.
The views expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and not UCLA or the ASUCLA Communications Board.