As readers of my blog know, one of the dead horses I tend to beat is the line that “more than anything else, what defines American Jews is that we go to college.” Depending on which survey you believe somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of American Jews go to college—a larger number than celebrate Passover seders or light candles on Shabbat or go to shul on Yom Kippur, and a figure that blows away any other demographic group. I continue to believe that going to college—particularly to secular colleges and universities—is one of the great unexamined parts of the American Jewish story.

That belief has motivated my own academic work, and it is propelled by my professional life as a campus rabbi. My reading is colored by it: I tend to look for the university as a site or even an actor in many of the issues and debates of American Jewish life today. When Danny Gordis wrote his recent piece about the response to Israeli Ambassador Daniel Oren’s commencement address at Brandeis, my interest honed in on the question of what it meant for Brandeis to be a Jewish university (a notoriously complicated question). What seemed at play, in my reading, were competing imaginaries: the imaginaries (in the Benedict Anderson or Arjun Appadurai sense) of the Jewish community, on the one hand, and those of the liberal, secular university on the other (though I would also argue that the two are braided and overlapping—Jews have been deeply involved in constructing our imaginaries of universities).

Or take Peter Beinart’s recent essay, which has generated much discussion and some gnashing of teeth. Note that in the very first line—the very first line!—of his essay, Beinart invokes the imaginary of the Jewish college student: “In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel.” He goes on to say that “Most of [them]… were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel.”

Those values—particularly that one about open debate—are associated for many of us with a key element of the college imaginary: the development of “critical thinking.” In the words of the former dean of Harvard College: The adults colleges produce should “rejoice in discovery and in critical thought.” They should “advance knowledge, promote understanding, and serve society.” The education provided by the college “should liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead.” These adults should be free agents, independent and inner-directed subjects who can make up their own minds, and who will be able to do so throughout their lives: “The support the College provides to students is a foundation upon which self-reliance and habits of lifelong learning are built.”

This is what we aim for in higher education, in the words of the nation’s oldest institution in the business. It is what we imagine about ourselves as college-educated people. And since Jews are college-educated people, it is also what we imagine of ourselves as Jews.  To close the loop, we could put it this way: to be Jewish is to be a critical thinker.

But that’s wrong. (more…)

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This week I had the great pleasure of participating in Hillel’s Engagement Institute in the hills of Simi Valley, CA. All 14 of our new Campus Entrepreneurs were there, along with our phenomenal Doppelt Director of Engagement Andrea Jacobs, who flew straight to the west coast from a full Birthright Israel trip of 40 Northwestern students. CEI interns and Hillel staff from six other campuses were there with us.

There’s no place like camp to form a group, and the Brandeis Bardin Institute is a fabulous camp. Our CEIers went on the low ropes course. They sang with a guitar-strumming song leader at a campfire. They had deep late night conversations in a dark room illuminated by the flame of a candle. As I write this they are preparing for Shabbat by decorating the camp dining hall, making challah covers, and learning songs.

What emerges so quickly–within 24 hours–in this kind of environment is a strong sense of group cohesion. In a short time these students have already established a strong connection with one another’s stories and the story of the Jewish people. And that’s precisely what they will now be able to nurture in their friends and fellow students when they return to campus.

Parshat Ki Teitzei, which we read this week, develops this theme of peoplehood very strongly. The Jewish people shares a collective memory: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt” (Deut. 24:18, 22). This is a beautiful part of group identity, our common participation in the same story. But, as the parasha reminds us, group identity almost always involves identifying a “them,” which enables us to identify an “us.” So, according to the parasha, the Jewish people is also defined by the law that certain people–Ammonites, Edomites, and men without the ability to procreate–are prohibited from entering the “Congregation of God.”

Here in twenty-first century America, the exlusiveness of these verses can be difficult for us to read. The tension that these verses create is one we still struggle with–and indeed should always struggle with. How can we be simultaneously about developing strong Jewish identities while also welcoming the many fellow-travelers who make up our communities and families?

In what appears to be a direct response to this parasha, the prophet Isaiah (ch. 56) proclaims “Observe what is right and do what is just… Keep the Sabbath.. and do not do evil.” And in the lines that follow, Isaiah articulates a vision in which “the foreigner who has attached himself to the Lord” will be brought to God’s holy mountain, the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, to join in the celebrations of the Jewish people. Rather than the group cohesion based on exclusion articulated in Deuteronomy, Isaiah envisions a world in which, to borrow a phrase, every person is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. Jewish identity is not fostered through exclusion, but rather comes about through engagement.

In preparing for the new school year about to begin next week, our staff and student leadership has made “warm and welcome” it watch word. Our vision is a vision of deep and rich Jewish engagement, built on shared memories and experiences. It is a difficult task, but as Isaiah understood, it is crucial to the life of the Jewish people and the world.