It’s just who we are.
Last week, I drove around Florida and visited with some college students who grew up at Temple Beth El. I wanted to hear about their semester, offer a space to talk about the war between Israel and Hamas, and, of course, treat them to a meal. They showed me around their campuses, through their sorority houses and Hillels. I heard about classes, changing majors, Greek Life, and dreams of studying abroad. But I also heard about vigils, protests, fear, and increased security. We exchanged stories of being in Israel and reflected on simultaneously feeling painfully close and painfully far from Israel. I was impressed by their drive and curiosity, devastated hearing their recent stories of unconscious code switching, and moved by their unwavering commitment to Judaism. Even when they are faced with challenges that are uniquely present on college campuses, they still seek to proudly wear their Jewish stars and travel to Israel.
The future is bright because of these students.
For the first part of my drive home, I thought to myself, “How lucky are we that these incredible students are products of Temple Beth El?”
Then, I listened to Identity/Crisis, a podcast hosted by Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, who is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The podcast seeks to “unpack current events affecting Jewish communities in North America, Israel, and around the world, revealing the core Jewish values underlying the issues that matter to you.” His guests were students of the Hevruta program, a gap year for Israeli and American teenagers to build connections to each other through study, community, and volunteering, before entering the IDF or college.
On the podcast, the American students told stories of the Israelis offering their families and homes, making sure that they felt comfortable as they adjusted to living in a new country. The Israeli students told stories of the Americans offering their families and homes, making sure that they knew they had a safe place, in case their family needed to evacuate.
Both shared the hope that these relationships would bring physical and emotional safety in the event that a haven was needed. Because all of Israel is responsible for one another (Shevuot 39a).
Here’s the thing: these students felt this innate connection to one another before October 7, and before Dr. Kurtzer specifically asked them to speak to their sense of responsibility.
The students on Identity/Crisis had the same response that Abraham had in this week’s Torah portion. Abraham sees three people approaching his tent in the desert and runs towards them, immediately offering to wash their feet, a bite to eat, and a place to rest. Abraham does not extend this hospitality because he knows that these people are angels, or that they have something to offer him. In fact, different commentaries add that Abraham was waiting outside because it was almost mealtime and he knew someone would be hungry. Being hospitable and taking care of others was just who he was in his soul.
This morning, we welcomed six individuals into the Jewish people. Each has spent significant time formally studying and preparing for this moment. Yet, when asked, no one had an “aha” moment, where they could identify that they were now ready to be Jewish. Their souls have always been Jewish, and today’s ritual in the ocean only formalized what they all knew already: this is who they are.
As I finished my drive home last week, and again this morning as I drove from the ocean to our Beck Family Campus, I found myself reflecting on our college students. Yes, we are lucky to have strong, thoughtful, and articulate students. But their kindness, love, and strong Jewish identities? That is not luck at all. They are the next generation, embodying the same values that the Jewish people have used as guideposts for generations, all the way back to Abraham, and continuing through today.
This Shabbat, may we look to our college students and the newest members of the Jewish people, and remember that our tradition has continued since Abraham not because of any specific practice or tradition, but because of the character in each unique heart and soul that makes up the People of Israel.