This is the first of a series of blog posts on the experience of religious students at Wesleyan. Religion is an issue we rarely talk about as a community and I hope through this series we can get the conversation going. A few questions to think about as you read this: in what ways is Wesleyan more or less accepting of religious difference than the rest of the country? How does this difference affect the lives of religious students and fabric of our community? Why is religion a topic that often gets overlooked even though it is so central to many of our lives?
The first piece in this series is centered around the Jewish experience at Wesleyan. Danny Blinderman ’14 graciously agreed to reach out to different members of the Jewish community, reflect on his years at Wesleyan, and compile the post. Enjoy!
-Kate Cullen ’16 (Dwight Greene Intern for Diversity and Community Engagement)
Our Jewish Community
By: Danny Blinderman
When I was asked to contribute a piece for the Dean for Diversity Blog on the Jewish community the request struck me as odd, just as I am sure that the topic and placement of this piece seems out of place to all of you. When we think about groups and communities that are marginalized on this campus our minds often turn to students of color, sexual assault survivors, or the Queer community.
The Jewish community doesn’t often make that list, and I think the reason why is that when most people imagine a Jewish individual at Wesleyan, they imagine someone like me. They imagine a white (Ashkenazi), upper-middle class individual whose parents went to college (and likely graduate school) and work in industries and jobs where employment is steady. They imagine someone who is fairly disconnected with Israel, secular (perhaps militantly so) and while ze might show up for services once or twice a year, religion plays an exceedingly small role in their life. This person does not accept limitations on what food they can eat, what they can do on Saturdays, and whom they can touch. The last time their Judaism made a claim on their life was likely one of their parents or grandparents exhorting them to eat a second helping of food at dinner.
There is no doubt that this individual exists in, and perhaps even dominates, the Jewish community at Wesleyan. My goal for this piece is to show you that I am not the only kind of Jew at Wesleyan. I want to show you that there are Jews here who are not secular, not apathetic towards Israel, and not white. I want to showcase the diversity of Jewish life and Jewish experience on this campus, and I want to do it by telling three simple stories about how those who diverge from the mainstream face marginalization that deserves to be recognized and oppression that deserves redress.
I want you to imagine that you lived in a world where, once a week, time stops. Where the never-ending deluge of emails, texts, phone calls and homework assignments that competes for our attention and drives us to the brink of distraction recedes for just one day. Into the void normally filled by the racket of everyday life instead comes reflection, meditation or a time to truly connect with people for longer than a harried five-minute meet up as you both wait for coffee at Pi. You might read a book you’ve been meaning to get to, take a walk towards Long Lane or call that relative that you’ve been meaning to contact, all with the confidence that you’ve dropped out of normal time and that, just for today, you live in a world that waits for you.
I’ll bet the vision outlined above sounds lovely to most of you, and about as close to the reality most of us experience as the idea of sleep during finals. However, for a few people on this campus it is a weekly reality. Jewish tradition designates Saturday, or more exactly sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, as a day of rest and reflection. While there are many variations on what one is or is not allowed to do on Shabbat according to Jewish tradition, the most commonly cited and often observed are an abstention from using electricity (laptops, phones etc.), writing, driving and other work activities. Shabbat observance at Wesleyan takes many forms. I have friends who don’t answer emails on Shabbat, and try to abstain from writing or homework. I have others who have no issue with writing or turning on a light, but for whom Shabbat is more of an imagined reality where one can get away from the din of normalcy and reflect.
It is important to note that these are not casual preferences but rather core tenants of people’s identities and religious practices. I say this because, as you’ve probably already realized, the rest of the world doesn’t operate on this schedule and often has trouble honoring the choices of individuals who choose to set aside a day for Shabbat.
You might wonder how big a deal that conflict could be. We all run on different schedules, so why does it matter that Wesleyan and the people who live here rarely take into account Shabbat as they conduct their lives and run the school? It matters because Wesleyan often makes it impossible to be a fully accepted member of the community and keep Shabbat in a meaningful way.
As an example, I now want you to imagine that when time stops for you, it continues for the rest of the world. Now, think about what happens if when the rest of the world interacts with you, they don’t know or acknowledge that you’ve chosen to treat this day differently. Instead, they expect you to function, literally, on their time rather than your own. They schedule meetings, send emails and assign work with no regard for the fact that you won’t or can’t respond or comply. All of a sudden this peaceful oasis that you have built for yourself is transformed into a cage that constrains you and diminishes your ability to participate as an equal in this community.
For too many people, Wesleyan turns Shabbat into a cage. It is transformed from something beautiful into something ugly by Wesleyan’s inability or unwillingness to take into account that some people live at a different tempo. Professors and administrators regularly place major deadlines on Saturday, totally unaware that they are forcing students to choose between an integral part of their religious identity and their academic standing. One of my more unsettling discoveries was that if a student asks for an extension or alteration of a deadline for religious reasons, Professors are not obligated to grant one. Instead, the University puts students’ religious identities and academic lives at the mercy of professorial discretion.
Don’t believe that these conflicts are real and hurtful? My freshman year drop-add began on a Saturday. For you or me this is a totally inconsequential fact, but it is a deeply unfair choice for those who keep Shabbat. I have a dear friend who observes Shabbat, and tries to abstain from writing or using her laptop during the day. She has described to me how hurtful it was to have her first real interaction with Wesleyan be a choice between her religion and her academic standing, especially as a first year when support systems are at their weakest and the terror of being left out of classes is greatest. Worse, there was no redress. Deadlines can be altered but drop/add doesn’t move because a few students have a religious objection. My friend literally counted down the second until after sundown in order to see what classes she got and what her standing for drop/add would be, placing her at a disadvantage to the rest of our class because of her religious observance.
This is all piled on top of a myriad of other issues that effect people’s lives every day. There are exams scheduled on Saturday’s during the fall, and NESCAC games sometimes fall on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. All of this contributes to the cultural divide that any Shabbat-observant student faces on this campus. At Wesleyan, Friday nights are typically reserved for various shades of debauchery, not reflection or community. At a place where religion is often caricatured and misunderstood the idea that someone might alter his or her behavior for religious reasons is seen as archaic and uncool More broadly, students must live daily with the disconnect that comes from a University and community that is alternately incapable or unwilling to acknowledge or accommodate people who have chosen to live on a different temporal landscape, one where the go-go-go ceases for one day a week.
My best friend at Wesleyan is also the smartest person I know. I can count on one hand the number of arguments I have won against her, and rare is the issue that does not evoke a passionate opinion or a well-constructed argument. I say this only to drive home the significance of the recent instance when she told me that she just didn’t want to be part of the dialogue around Israel-Palestine this year.
I was surprised, and asked why. She explained that she has a cousin who lives in Israel, an exceptional person, judging from her description. He just finished medical school and per Israeli law is now about to begin his army service. He had just written her an extraordinarily eloquent letter describing how he felt torn between patriotism and a desire to serve and the terror at the thought of being a soldier. My friend told me she just didn’t think she could talk about this topic right now. Her cousin, her friend is in the Israeli army and she felt that too many people forget that people here have personal connections to this issue when they have conversations and dole out criticism on this campus.
Many people have written on the shortcomings of the dialogue around the issue of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The scope of their criticisms and objections (coming from every possible side) are wide-ranging, and far too broad for me to get into fully here. I want to first make it clear what I am not saying by starting with this: these shortcomings do not come from the substance of political opinions. No one has a right to be shielded from ideas or opinions different from his or her own, no matter how shocking or hurtful they might be. A robust dialogue on this issue is vital (indeed, I spend most of my time contributing to it) and is an integral part of the political and humanitarian conversation on this campus.
However, there is a fine line between debating ideas and attacking individuals. All too often the dialogue around this issue strays into the vitriolic and cruel. Words like thug, murderer, evil or killer slip into our conversations too often and are attached to people and institutions too easily. I think this happens because it is easy to caricature and attack an abstraction, to brand people or places we have no knowledge of or contact with as evil. A personal connection of any kind humanizes the individual or place in question, and places it beyond the reach of certain types of rhetoric. As an example, the majority of us might rail against the commentators on Fox News but we likely wouldn’t use the same words or tone to speak with a friend who happens to hold conservative opinions. Their humanity demands our respect, even if we declare open season on their views.
It is important to remember that for many people on this campus, the issue of Israel is not abstract. They have friends and family who live there, and in some cases serve in its army. These people are incredibly precious to them, and often fear for their safety accompanies them wherever they go. When our dialogue regresses to the ugly state it often does the result is more than discomfort: it becomes a deeply personal attack on someone they love. On all other issues we strive to be kind, to divide between the individual and the idea. We would never insult President Roth’s family in order to make a point about need-blind. Most of us agree that while ideas are fair game human beings are not. Some people in the Jewish community wonder why that sometimes doesn’t apply to their friends or family in Israel.
When we talk, argue, or criticize we need to remember never to dehumanize. At its core, the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict concerns human beings, not faceless institutions or amorphous organizations. All too often this campus forgets that when someone floats a caustic comment, you might be implicating an individual who is dear to someone you know. That should never stop the discussion—quite the contrary it makes it more personal and urgent—but it should dictate how that conversation should be conducted. I know a fair number of people here with family or friends in Israel who feel attacked by rhetoric that makes them out to be monsters and are too scared too speak up. Our community owes them a better, and kinder, conversation.
Are you Jewish?
This is a question that, I must confess, I have never been asked. Partially this is because that particular part of my identity leaks out of my ears. I think the last time anyone at Wesleyan was surprised by the fact that I am Jewish was my first day on campus. Strangely, there is something comforting about that level of transparency. It is empowering to know that people accept my identity, that they recognize me as I recognize myself. I don’t have to justify or explain who I am; it comes just as naturally as my name.
I think this is the world that we should strive for, where everyone accepts and affirms whatever identity people choose to attach to themselves. But what if you lived in a community that refused to recognize you in the way you saw yourself? What if everyone was always surprised, maybe even incredulous, that someone who looked and sounded the way you did could be what you said you were. What is it like where your identity doesn’t match the world’s preconceived notion of what that identity should look like? I imagine that it would be exhausting and humiliating to be forced again and again to explain, and justify yourself to everyone around you.
There is a portion of the Jewish community on this campus for whom that is a daily reality. Picture a Jewish student here: you probably imagined someone who is white, maybe with wavy hair. Their family came from somewhere in Eastern Europe and bagels and matzo ball soup are their culinary markers of choice.
At Wesleyan, we forget that this is a portion of the Jewish community rather than its totality. The Jewish community here encompasses a startling range of diversity, Sephardic and Mizrahi, Black and White, East and West. The trouble is, we’ve decided what a Jew looks and sounds like on this campus and anyone who doesn’t fit that mold is forced into a never ending series of explanations and awkward questions.
This critique is not directed merely at the Wesleyan community: too often the Jewish community forgets that there is more than one type of Jew. At Shabbat services, no one has ever asked me “What brought you to services”. The answer is seen as self-evident: I am a Jew and tonight I decided I wanted to pray. Yet when someone shows up who doesn’t match our imagined image of a Jew at Wesleyan (which all to often means someone who is not white) the curious questions begin: “What brought you to services, tell me about your family, have you always been Jewish?” These are examples of the awkward half-questions that betray all to easily the incredulity that someone who looks like that or talks like that could really be Jewish. How is an individual supposed to find acceptance either at Wesleyan or within the Jewish community if we continually, casually doubt that they are who they say they are.
Even if we nominally accept the differences in people (and I have rarely known any Wesleyan community that would not at least strive to do so) our level of curiosity represents another barrier to acceptance. The interest we direct towards most individuals is towards their ideas or experiences: towards these individuals it is often directed at them. Namely, how someone who looks like or sounds like him or her came to be sitting with us. No matter how pure our intentions, these individuals can feel put on display when what they crave at that moment is what all of us crave: to find acceptance within a community.
I hope you were surprised by something you just read. It was my intention to lift up stories that don’t get told often enough and remind the campus that these individuals exist. Hopefully with a little more education and understanding we can move forward towards a greater measure of acceptance.