Hoping to initiate a discussion series on similar topics, the Williams College Jewish Association held a discussion entitled “Being Jewish: the Jewish Experience at Williams and Beyond” on January 20 at the Jewish Religious Center.
More than forty people showed up to the facilitated dialogue. Led by Jewish Association member Max Weinstein ’00, the discussion’s goal was to examine the importance and perception of Judiasm on the Williams campus. Weinstein hoped the talk would discover “how open and inclusive a term like ‘Jewish’ is.”
Weinstein, who had organized the discussion without the help of any faculty, had asked six members of the college community to prepare short responses to the conversation topic. Each with a different background, five of the invited speakers were students and one was a faculty member.
Tiffany Lacker ’99 was the first invited speaker. Having grown up in a Jewish environment in New York City with parents skeptical of religion, she found herself “unable to answer how it is to be Jewish.” She also lived in Israel for one year before college, and had acquired an interest in Jewish law. These laws, she explained, had helped cement her relationship with the religion.
The next speaker was Professor Kerry Christensen, Chair and Associate Professor of Classics as well as Associate Dean for Academic Programs. She had converted to Judiasm several years ago, “responding to what felt inevitable.” Christensen explained that her conversion had actually helped family relationships, instead of creating tension arising from her new religion. Her mother, she explained, “wanted to be a Jewish mother,” while her father appreciated the Jewish emphasis on wine and bread. While she felt that she was “coming home” to Judiasm, Christensen described being Jewish as “not uncomplicated.”
Alicia Cohen ’99 spoke next. Her Jewish identity was integral to the rest of her personality, as she claimed to be “unable to separate [her] Jewish identity from the rest of [her] self.” She found it, therefore, difficult to tell how much her Jewish identity had impacted her. Though she is involved with the Jewish community at Williams, Cohen admitted that she had had problems reconciling Judiasm with her feminist approach to issues. The battle between the two, she explained, had become a “source of strife.”
Another who had spent time in Israel was Noga Chlamtac ’01 â€“ nearly eight years. She noted the discrepancy between the practice of Judiasm in Israel compared to the U.S., but still found comfort in the religion. She claimed her Jewish identity was “not about religion,” but instead about the community created by it.
Jason Webster ’99 introduced an entirely new approach to the topic question, as he was not Jewish, but Southern Baptist. The Jewish religion, Webster explained, still plays a large role in his life. Religiously, he felt uncomfortable with Southern Baptism, but had “felt closer to God” at Jewish services. Additionally, he enjoyed the community created by the Jewish Association at Williams. Webster added that he hopes to raise his children Jewish.
The last invited speaker was Mike Nazarian ’02, who, though an American Iranian, was Jewish. This created a unique situation for Nazarian, who also tended to follow Judiasm more traditionally than others who had spoken. The religion also existed at a personal level for Nazarian, as he found comfort in the religion’s emphasis on family.
The invited speakers explained their positions for thirty minutes, then Weinstein opened the dialogue to rest of the audience. While many responded to the six who had spoken earlier, some raised new ideas as well. While some felt that the smallness of the Jewish community at Williams made it comfortable to participate, others claimed that the community’s size made it too exclusive. Some simply had a hard time making the transition from a larger group. Nearly the entire audience participated in the discussion.
The discourse ended after one hour, though several stayed and discussed in smaller groups.
Weinstein called the discussion a “success,” while especially pleased that not “knowing most of the people” introduced “many new possibilities.” He hopes to continue this type of discourse in some form, including all religious backgrounds and issues. This, Weinstein explained, would widen the forum of discussion and help create a more comfortable religious atmosphere at Williams College.