An exceptionally large crowd showed up last Thursday at the Jewish Religious Center (JRC) to participate in a discussion entitled “Secularism and Jewish Culture.” The program is the brainchild of Max Weinstein ’00 and is the second in a series that Weinstein hopes will continue indefinitely.
Weinstein is optimistic that the forum will provide opportunities for a large group in the Williams community that sees themselves as Jewish, yet does not participate in many of the Jewish events that are offered. Weinstein noted after the forum that there are about 200 Jewish students at Williams, yet only 15-20 show up every week for religious services.
“There is definitely an opportunity to engage more people on this campus who obviously view themselves as Jewish and think of themselves as being Jewish, in a more vibrant and inclusive Jewish life,” he said.
After noticing that many more students of all faiths showed up at the JRC for the secular dinner that follows each religious service, Weinstein came up with the discussion topic of how students can come together in non-traditional formats. This topic fit perfectly into the larger theme that Weinstein hopes to work towards with his program which he describes as “community building. Coming together, discussing topics that are of interest to the Jewish community and the students at Williams.”
For this discussion, Weinstein had five students prepare short statements of their thoughts on the topic. The first student to speak was Robert Seitelman ’01.
Seitelman introduced himself as never having been very religious, but interested in being part of a tradition that he felt a strong attachment to. He raised the difficulty of identifying himself as Jewish without going to services regularly. Seitelman alluded to understanding Yiddish phrases and Jewish humor as a central part of his identity that he would never want to lose.
The next presenter was Michael Hurwitz ’00, who told the group that he was always placed by others as Jewish even though he felt no strong religious bond to the tradition. He expressed the syndrome of “being told that I’m Jewish, therefore I am,” and questioned the actions of people who have been blindly following such a routine. However, Hurwitz expounded on his interest in the Jewish culture and his interest in being a secular Jew.
Tiffany Lacker ’99 spoke third mainly on the topic of being a cynical Jew. Lacker felt that she had always been a cynical Jew until she traveled to Israel and realized that “there are some good rules.”
Lacker brought up the Jewish notion that one should never criticize one’s parents directly as a Jewish tradition that is very applicable to the world today. She still expressed some cynicism with the religion and felt that that extreme elements should definitely be open to some secular forces, especially concerning the role that Judaism assigns to women.
The fourth presenter, Stephanie Frank ’01, spoke from the interesting position of being non-Jewish, yet being consistently thought of as Jewish. She has a last name that could be Jewish and is very interested in Judaism due to the “intrigue” that secular Judaism provides. Frank discussed the difficulty of integrating into Jewish culture, using Seitelman’s Yiddish example as something that non-Jews cannot easily pick up.
The final speaker was Lisa Brodsky ’01 who spoke with ambivalence about those who wish to distinguish between was is sacred and what is secular. “Religion is how you [interact] with people, not just something that you do on the weekend, “ she said. To Brodsky, the most important thing that a Jewish culture has to offer is a sense of community and being with a group of people.
After the designated speakers were finished, Weinstein opened up the floor for anyone to speak. Many students engaged in a lively dialogue that touched not only on issues of the Jewish community at Williams, but also on larger questions such as how a non-traditional Jew could best respond to anti-Semitism.
Weinstein was extremely pleased with the success of drawing and engaging so many students. “I hope it’s a model for other kinds of discussions that I think should happen much more often at Williams,” he said.
Weinstein is quick to emphasize that although faculty members are welcome to attend and often a part of the initial presentation, this is primarily a student forum. “I wanted it to be a place where students felt comfortable and that was one of the things that I thought was lacking in the extra-curricular forums on campus; they felt too formal, they felt too much like class, they felt too much like you were being lectured. Other faculty would come and they would respond- just as faculty members do at academic lectures, and so I wanted this to be a more comfortable forum where everybody felt qualified to contribute. There was no sense that I am not educated enough, I don’t know enough about this topic, I’m not articulate enough. If you can express what has happened in your own life then you are just as qualified as anyone to speak.”
As time goes on, Weinstein hopes that the discussion can be broadened. “Once the group is established there is no reason that we can’t come together and discuss other kinds of topics,” he said.
The next topic will be Intermarriage and Inter-dating among members of the Jewish religion and will be held on Wednesday, February 24th at the JRC.