This post was originally written for The Collegiate Leadership Internship Program (CLIP) blog. CLIP is a program of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU. To learn more, visit clip.bronfmancenter.org.
When I was accepted into CLIP for the summer, I was filled with excitement of spending time in New York City with other Jewish young adults. I figured I would get my fair share of amazing New York bagels, the chance to be a tourist for the whole summer, and the opportunity to be around other Jewish college students with similar backgrounds. I knew that CLIP aimed to bring together Jews of diversity, but I don't think I fully understood how much I would learn until our Shabbaton retreat, and how different our backgrounds truly were.
Growing up in a home with parents of an interfaith marriage, I had a different upbringing than some Jews. My mom proudly raised my sisters and me as Reform Jewish women, but we seldom went to Shabbat because of Friday night high school football games and other events we attended together. I watched from the bleachers, as my sisters (my role models) participated in cheerleading down on the football field. We celebrated after with a Friday night dinner. This was our weekly tradition. While these nights together are a significant part of who I am, there is something in me that calls for a change in my Jewish practices as I grow older. I believe being a child with only one Jewish parent has given me the insight to different religions and acceptance of each of them. But it also has inspired me to grow closer to my own religion and my own values. So when I embarked on this Shabbaton retreat, I was looking for something that could give me the puzzle piece I had been missing in my Jewish life. What I didn’t realize was that the amazing traditions of the people around me were about to teach me more than I could ever imagine.
When I used to think of more observant Jews than myself, I thought of an amazing culture so deeply rooted in Halacha (Jewish law) that I could respect but not commit to. As I experienced services this past weekend, I felt a wave of emotions as I heard young men and women my age read from the Torah. They were so passionate and knowledgeable about what our God had been saying. I was in shock. It was inspiring to hear, but as I sat there, I questioned myself. For when I heard these amazing people speak and explain lessons from the words of our ancestors, I realized how much I didn’t know about Judaism. I doubted my connection to its practices. As many around me read our Hebrew prayers in the Siddurim so thoughtfully (and quicker than myself), I realized that it was okay that I didn’t know everything. It was okay that I was not used to some particular prayers. I realized my practices as a young adult may have been a little different, but they still stem from something greater that my peers and I all share together. I began to see that not only are we part of the same, incredible religion, but it is our duty to open the eyes of Jews everywhere. It is our mission to unite Jews of all denominations, because we are all rooted in the same values.
While I looked around the room, I got tears in my eyes as I noticed how much this Shabbat truly meant to some of my new friends. How this Shabbat might have represented the first time they were not with their family, because praying together is what they did on previous Friday nights. Although my family may not have been praying together, our time spent with each other on Friday nights created close relationships and memories that I treasure. But on this past Shabbat, this particular Friday evening represented a revelation. It opened my eyes to the closeness and uniqueness my CLIP peers and I share as Jewish people in this world. It changed the way I want to practice Friday nights going forward. All weekend we spoke of the similarities between each denomination, but in the end, does it really mean anything if we don't all embrace it? Being around such supportive, passionate, and intelligent men and women has led to the realization that embracing our traditions is the first step to a pluralistic world. Embracing the similarities and love for Judaism is the first step to accepting all Jews so we can stand together to change the world and resist opposing forces. Embracing pluralism is the next part of my Jewish journey, to truly reconnect to our ideals with the support and lessons from the wonderful people around me.
Geena Marano is a rising junior at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge majoring in Child and Family Studies and minoring in Spanish. As a CLIP 2014 NYC Intern, she is working at FEGS Health and Human Services in the WeCare Wellness department this summer.