Although it may not seem like it on the Tufts campus, the Jewish community is a minority in more places than not. The community is so tiny – just under 14 million people worldwide – that identifying and examining minorities within it may seem like splitting hairs to some. In my experience, Jewish communities like the one I “belong to” in New York, tend to coalesce around issues in presenting a unified front to the rest of the world and generally emphasize a shared history as a source of that unity. Yet, the panel discussion that took place in the Crane Room on February 6 emphasized the fact that the Jewish experience is not so monochromatically uniform as it is a mosaic of technicolor tiles.
Along with a discussion, attendees at the panel were presented with a smattering of fruit and homemade goods made by co-chair of the event, freshman Jenny Skerker, who is also co-chair of the Learning Committee at Hillel. The event took place through a collaboration between Hillel’s Learning Committee, co-chaired by Skerker and sophomore Eva Strauss, and JQUEST, co-chaired by freshmen Harry Weissman and Jon Sirota.
Four panelists – president of Hillel Jordan Dashow ’14, and students Jesse Starger ’16, Cece Nealon-Shapiro ’16, and Blair Nodelman ’17 – joined Skerker and Weissman onstage to talk about their experiences as members of and their identities within the Jewish community. The unifying theme of their stories seemed to be an evolution of their Jewish identities in the context of their surrounding environments, feeling part of and apart from the community all at once, and finding their respective niches.
Nealon-Shapiro kicked off the panel discussing how, adopted as a young child, she does not look like stereotypically Jewish and how her Jewish identity tends to catch people off guard.
Following Nealon-Shapiro, Nodelman talked about her evolving identity from childhood to young-adulthood, pointing out that how much she identified or was identified as Jewish tended to be inversely correlated to the number of other Jews around her. During her talk, Nodelman brought up the rather touchy subject of the criteria for being Jewish. While the Jewish community at Tufts tends to be progressive in its stances on religious and social issues, the first time that Nodelman was told that she was not a Jew was when she came to Tufts.
Starger talked primarily about his experiences – from New Jersey to Beijing – as a Jew and how the experience differed from place to place. Tufts, by far, has the largest and most active Jewish community he has been a part of.
Finally, Dashow focused his discussion on the reconciliation of his Jewish upbringing and identity with his sexual identity. Dashow seemed particularly impressed with Tufts’ Jewish community’s acceptance of his seemingly split identity that he had been trying to fuse together before beginning his studies here. In addition to the above, Dashow touched on humanist Judaism – non-theist Judaism – and its role in the Jewish community.
The final question, presented by Weissman and inspired by a story in the Torah, asked the panelists to describe how to better “welcome the stranger” into the community in light of challenges within the community. Responses largely implied that welcoming the stranger would involve some sort of shift in the way people define their community. Meanwhile, events like this panel discussion which invited the voices and viewpoints of the proverbial “strangers” are themselves a way of expanding the breadth and scope of the Jewish identity.