Following a year in Israel, attending a college or university for four years can be a difficult and grueling endeavor. Whether it is the adjustment back into American culture, the intense pressure of schoolwork, or the mere fact that your parental figures are just a phone call—or worse —a car ride away, the transition is not an easy one. There is however, one thing that can be even more difficult, finding that same spirituality you found in Israel, stateside.
Unlike the hole in the wall minyanim, the sweet melodies, and the inviting atmosphere of Israel’s Jewish society, America’s Jewish population is very different. American Jewry is structured, rigid, and traditional, lacking the elements that make being Jewish in Israel exceptional and extraordinary. Considering this situation, the unfortunate truth is that Israeli Jewry is truly a phenomenon that is hard to replicate on American soil. However, as I have learned, there are alternative ways to supplement the spirituality felt in the Holy Land.
I left for Israel, my first time visiting the Jewish homeland, September 2011, embarking on a nine month journey in a breath taking and marvelous country. Starting the second week, I was wearing a kippah regularly, followed by observing Shabbat weekly, and eventually I began to wear tzitzit strictly on Shabbat. I had learned to love Judaism and Israel in a whole new way, but when the time came to step onto the El Al flight back to the lovely Newark International Airport at the conclusion of my life changing experience, I was less than ecstatic.
Coming home was hard. Many of the Jewish rituals I had enjoyed doing in Israel returned to the way they felt pre-Israel, monotonous and lacking gratification. Most problematic to me personally has been the observance of Shabbat and wearing my kippah. I still regularly wear my kippah but I no longer consistently keep Shabbat. In between schoolwork and playing for my school’s ice hockey team, fully observing Shabbat is just not realistic. In spite of this, I have found ways of supplementing weekly visits to my favorite minyanim, amazing tisches, and of course those glorious Shabbat naps.
As I expressed before, I still continue to wear my kippah but I continue to question the personal validity for doing so. Wearing a kippah, in contemporary society means something, something I do not necessarily fully adhere to. And so I ask myself: “Self, do I deserve to wear I kippah? Is it right to wear a kippah when I don’t keep Shabbat? Is it right to wear a kippah in the campus dining hall when I am eating dairy not from the Kosher facilities? Is it right to wear a kippah while I am doing work on Shabbat?” All of these, and many more are daily questions that I deal with. Yet, I continue to wear it, because it reminds me of my values, beliefs, experiences, and, of course, my Judaism.
In addition, I have gone to great lengths to surround myself with the kind of people who I best associate with, the people who help me answer my questions, and more importantly help me ask better ones: alumni from Nativ, USY, Ramah, Schechter, and those of similar backgrounds. I am adjusting and I am making the best out of my situation. I am president of the Muhlenberg Israeli cultural club, I started a Jewish a cappella group, a group of friends and I walk to an Orthodox shul near campus on Shabbos, and I spend my Friday nights sprawled out on a couch in the basement of the Hillel building, having deep conversations about anything from Israeli politics, to how to wash a sheitel. As well, I am continuing to work very closely with the Hillel staff to improve a growing observant community at Muhlenberg.
“If you build it, they will come.” This definitely applies here, because the North Noshery (dairy) and the South Noshery (meat) are not only hits with the Jewish population on campus but also with the rest of the student body. This new Kosher dining institution in our new ski-lodge-like dining hall has attracted the attention of a lot of young Jews. Thus, I am not worried about the future of Muhlenberg Jewry; I think our community is continuing to grow. Even in a student body of a little over two thousand, I continue to meet new people who tell me: “I did USY,” “I went to Ramah for that one summer,” or “Yeah, I went to Israel with my Schechter.” With time, our community will evolve and adapt. Thus, I am optimistic about what the future has in store for Muhlenberg’s Jewish community.
We young people have so much potential; we just need to understand how to use that potential to benefit the community. Creating the right Jewish atmosphere out of your individual and specific community is challenging, but if you get it right and really give it your all, the results are astonishing. Spirituality, like that of Israel, can be constructed from the people around you.
Ethan Weg is an alumnus of The Nativ College Leadership Program in Israel. He is currently a freshman at Muhlenberg College.