This past weekend, I decided to attend a two-night camping trip programmed by the Wesleyan Jewish Community (WJC). However, deciding to sign up for this trip wasn’t the easiest or most obvious choice for me.
On move-in day of my freshman year, a group of enthusiastic and charismatic upperclassmen representatives from the WJC handed my family and me a pamphlet with all of the upcoming Jewish events on campus. Before I even got a chance to read the list in its entirety, my parents were eagerly reading off every single event and why I should attend. I mean, I don’t blame them. I was in a new, less Jewish environment for the first time in four years, and they just wanted to make me feel like I was back at my Jewish high school. Hearing them tell me, “This will be good for you!” and “You’re going to make so many friends who have the same experiences as you!” made me realize that from now on, being Jewish is a choice I get to make.
Going to services, taking Jewish Studies courses, and blowing the shofar (a ram’s horn blown on significant Jewish holidays) were all going to be up to me. Going into college, I would be able to have a non-Jewish space for a little while. I wanted to hear about religious experiences other than my own, and more than that, I wanted to be part of a community where Judaism wasn’t the common denominator.
All I can remember about the first few calls I had with my parents during orientation week is them telling me to go on the camping trip advertised on that paper the WJC handed to us. And, like most young people when receiving advice from their parents, I tend to push it away. So, I told them, “I’ll think about it.” And I did think about it: during the first half of orientation, I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t go on the trip, mostly because the trip was going to be my second weekend at Wesleyan and I didn’t want to miss out on meeting different types of people, not just Jewish ones. I thought that by going on the trip, I would be limiting myself to the type of people I had been surrounded by for so long.
However, by the end of orientation, after hearing numerous people’s names, hometowns, and prospective majors, I realized my parents were right. I missed talking about Judaism, but more specifically, I missed being part of a larger Jewish community. I was beginning to realize that going to college wasn’t just a social and academic transition, but a religious and cultural one as well.
When the first week of classes started, I was really eager to get involved in Jewish life, and no, it wasn’t just my parents talking. I went to Shabbat services and eventually signed up for the camping trip, and I’m so grateful I did.
One memory that stands out to me the most from this trip was the final night. After doing havdalah (a ceremony marking the end of Shabbat), we began to sing around the campfire. I know this sounds like a pretty conventional camping experience, but it wasn’t. One after another, other people shared Jewish and non-Jewish songs they had previously learned. Hearing familiar Jewish prayers brought me back to feeling like I was at home, and hearing non-familiar songs made me feel like I was a part of something new. Even though I assumed I would be surrounded by the same types of people from my high school or synagogue, I was actually surrounded by an entirely new set of people with all different relationships to Judaism.
I think a metaphor that resonates with me and the way I want to practice Judaism in college is something [Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and University Jewish Chaplain] Rabbi David [Leipziger Teva] said at the first Shabbat I attended. He told us that his favorite animal is a crayfish because of how frequently it molts its shell. In a way, I want my relationship with Judaism to be like a crayfish. The way I relate and engage with my Jewish self is an ever-changing and shedding process with many layers that can be pulled off and regrown as my time at Wesleyan continues.
Zara Skolnik can be reached at email@example.com.