For years I was a student in a Jewish elementary and junior high school. Although the school was secular, at least I was always in a Jewish environment, learning only with other Jews. This year I started going to high school and it isn't Jewish at all since the nearest Jewish one is over 1000 kilometers away. I still go to synagogue on a nearly daily basis, practice Modern Orthodox Judaism at home, and am friends with many other Jews, but I find myself slowly becoming more and more immersed in the general teenage culture.
I always believed I'd be strong enough to resist this when I came to high school, but I am experiencing gradual assimilation. By no means does it look like my Jewish identity is at threat of being lost, but how can I resist the mainstream high school culture?
Lauren Roth's Answer
I keep my house really clean. I do! But the other day I baked fresh challah and covered the steaming loaves with (clean!) towels from the linen closet, to keep them warm until the meal. After I removed the towels from covering the challah, I said to myself, “Covering delicious-smelling bread doesn’t make towels dirty. I’ll just put these back (gasp!) into the linen closet.” Lo and behold, a few days later, I gave my kids a bath. When they emerged from the water, I (yep, you guessed it!) wrapped them in those towels. All of a sudden, I looked around, trying to figure out, “Who just baked bread?” The air was saturated with the aroma of it!
There are two things I learned from that. Lesson one: towels that cover food—even delicious-smelling food—go into the washing machine after they’ve been appropriated and used for that purpose. Lesson two: things permeate. Delicious bread aromas permeate towels. And your experiences permeate you.
I can tell you for a fact what kept my husband staunchly dedicated to Judaism and Torah and God while he was at Yale Medical School: learning Torah every single, solitary day. For at least two hours. With a chevrusah (study partner).
At Princeton, learning Torah every single day kept me dedicated to Judaism.
I can tell you for a fact what kept me dedicated to Judaism and Torah and God while I was at Princeton: learning Torah every single, solitary day. With a study partner. Without that, I don’t know if we would have maintained our well-delineated path of being devoted, practicing, dynamically evolving Jews. Torah learning with other similarly devoted Jews kept us.
It’s a message that’s really clear in the Passover Haggadah. The entire Haggadah is Torah learning. Torah learning about the holiday of Passover. How else to feel the holiday? How else to feel God’s providential hand talking us out of Egypt, as we are supposed to feel on Passover? Only through learning the relevant Torah passages about the slavery and redemption. In fact, in the Haggadah itself it says: “Go and learn.” It also says “This is what stood for us” when we were slaves in Egypt, and the Hebrew word is “v’hee,” an acronym for the numerical values: 6, 5, 10, 1, representing 6 parts of the Mishna, 5 books of the Torah, 10 commandments, and one God. What stood for us in Egypt, kept us strong, kept us from assimilating, was the totality of our Torah.
You’re really fortunate to be facing this issue in this day and age, because you have thousands of study partners available to you easily: you can learn together via skype, via cell phones, anytime, anywhere, you can find each other through online channels like Partners in Torah, you can arrange study times via text or email…God is certainly helping you make this happen! Of course, if you find a real, live person in your synagogue, you can always meet face-to-face, the good old-fashioned way. And you can arrange your study time when you see each other at morning services each day.
The Power of Community
Whether you find study partners virtually or in real space, studying eternal texts with another Jew dedicated to our heritage will give you another extremely crucial component of staying connected to Judaism: community.
Never underestimate the power of a community to make you feel at home, and to make you want to stay where you feel comfortable, at home, with the people of that community. I’m from Memphis, and the Jewish community there is incredibly cohesive and embracing and comfortable; it’s like living in one big family. When I moved to New Jersey, I was terrified that that sense of community would be lacking. But it wasn’t. Just last week, the Jewish man who owns the produce store said to me, “Mrs. Roth?! You’re here on a Friday? You never come on Friday! Always Thursday!” I was so touched that he realized what my schedule for visiting his store was. And I realized: he and I are in community together. We are connected.
Then I went to the next store, where the Jewish cashier told me, “Send regards to the doctor!” Again, I was stunned! “You know who my husband is?” His reply: “Sure I do!” And I realized: the cashier and I are in community together. We are connected. We know each other. And it was a beautiful feeling of belonging.
Learning with a study partner will give you that beautiful feeling of community, as will attending your synagogue. When we spend time talking with people, or doing meaningful things with them (like learning Torah or praying), we become connected to them with ties that bind. And those ties will keep you feeling comfortable and embraced, and will keep your path of Judaism familiar and cozy and welcoming.
It’s like my mother told me recently: “Living in the world lovingly means defining our actions by what we are for, rather than reacting to what we are against.”
One more important point. My son’s teacher said: “Everything you need in order to be truly, deeply happy is allowed to you by Jewish law.” I think that concept will help you immensely, because a big part of the draw towards the mainstream high school culture will be things that Judaism frowns upon, like physical relationships before marriage, or drinking, drugging, and “hard partying”....
I know I’m dating myself here, but I’ve always disagreed with good ole’ Billy Joel when he croons, “They told you to pray…and locked you away…ah, but they never told you the price that you’d pay: the things that you might have done.” If someone’s religion is all about being “locked away” or “forced to pray,” that religion is not going to be appealing, cozy, comforting, comfortable, meaningful, or attractive in the least.
If you want to hold on to your Judaism, you have to live and learn an engaging, positive, alive philosophical system and set of practices, within the loving arms of a welcoming, warm community, realizing that “Everything you need in order to be truly, deeply happy is allowed to you by Jewish law.” Going to your synagogue is great. Learning Torah is paramount. The truth is, we don’t “keep Torah;” the Torah keeps us.