Getting involved in your local Jewish community may seem like a daunting task, but you may not realize how welcoming and open most Jewish communities are. Unlike most “religious” communities, people can get involved in their local Jewish community without any proclamations of belief.
This is because most communities recognize Judaism’s unique position as a tribe, and Jews regard each other like long lost cousins. On college campuses and within established communities, most Hillels, Chabads and synagogues around the world welcome these cousins with open arms, regardless of upbringing, belief or current practice.
People commonly worry that their lack of education means they will be rejected by other Jews, but many communities just want to invite their fellow Jews in for a hot meal and good company with no other agenda in mind. Others wish their brethren could understand our holy texts and practice Torah, but even those with such ideals in mind are usually welcoming and happy to offer their cousins company, conversation, and warmth at a moments notice.
Once you get past the initial nervousness, getting involved in your local Jewish community offers unique networking opportunities This is because many successful community members often host learning opportunities such as sponsoring prominent speakers in their homes or inviting community members to Shabbat meals. These opportunities allow students and young professionals to speak with and learn from top professionals, narrow down their area of interests and pursue opportunities that are generally hard to access.
Any philosopher and lover of learning needs a community to learn with. Even college students are often left with gaps in their education that can’t be filled by normal classes. Getting involved in your local Jewish community opens the door to endless opportunities to learn, whether you like partner learning (chavruta) or learning in bigger groups, join your local community and see what they have to offer. UCLA is lucky to have student-led group learning, Talmud at lunchtime, classes on Jewish history, JewQ (which includes both single-sex and co-ed text-based learning), Jewish Learning Fellowships through Hillel that offer $250, the JAM Mix Seminar that offers $300 and Sinai Scholars through Chabad which offers $350. Jewish learning opportunities and classes typically involve food, great conversation and universally applicable life lessons. Different synagogues and schools throughout the country offer various classes for people of all ages, and the only way to find out if they have something that is right for you is to take the first step and reach out.
One lesser known perk of getting more involved in your Jewish community is access to subsidized travel to places like Israel, Spain, and England. Jewish organizations focused on students of all ages offer trips. For high school students, NCSY, USY, BBYO and March of the Living offer opportunities for Jewish youth to travel, learn about Jewish history and connect to their heritage. After one turns 18, all Jews are eligible for Birthright, which is a revolutionary program that sends all Jews between 18 and 30 on an all expenses paid trip to Israel for 10 days. Additionally, many Hillels, Chabads, and Young Professional organizations offer subsidized travel to Israel and other Jewish communities around the world that will expand your horizons and allow you to return home with a new family.
Another huge perk of joining a Jewish community is that it allows you to find a small community within whatever setting you’re in, whether it’s a new school or a new city. For me, that means knowing people in all of my classes despite going to a school with 30,000 undergraduates because once I got to know a few hundred students, the school felt noticeably smaller. Instead of being an anonymous face in a new neighborhood, new school or new company, find the people you have something in common with and foster that.
Let’s not forget the perks that kept Jews together throughout the ages. If you are interested in observing more religious practices, getting involved with your local Jewish community is the first step. Once you have a group to spend Shabbat and holidays with, the idea of turning off your phone for 25 hours becomes less daunting, you look forward to sharing sacred time and traditions with your loved ones and it becomes easier to reconnect with your lineage.
If kosher interests you but you’re afraid its too limiting or too expensive to uphold, Jewish communities usually have kosher food available whether it’s through kosher sections in local supermarkets, kosher restaurants, or kosher cafeterias in your local Hillel. As a whole, the more involved you are with your Jewish community, the more accessible kosher food becomes.
You really have nothing to lose and everything to gain from getting more involved in your local Jewish community. Wherever you go in the world, you’ll find Jews who want to learn more about you and welcome you with open arms in a world where many people are depressed because they feel unnoticed and unappreciated. Getting involved with a small group within the big pond that is life can bring positivity, growth, and community to your life.