WATSKY: A new Jewish approach

Annelisa_Chabad feb 14
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

The bacchanalia of freely flowing food and wine that some students associate with Shabbat dinner at Chabad is an exaggeration, but not a complete fiction. I have friends who use the shiny new Chabad mansion as a pregame location or even an endgame, coming to dinner with the expectation of not remembering it the next day. Although Chabad may be uniquely festive in certain ways, for me the house functions similarly to other Jewish venues on campus — as a place to come together with friends in a realm apart from our stereotypically busy school lives, where there is just enough pressure from religious observance to keep phones out of hands and minds in the present.

While the Chabad-Lubavitch approach to Judaism is different from my own Conservative background, many of the central tenets are the same: community, education, tradition. The Hebrew acronym composing Chabad’s name references “wisdom, understanding and knowledge.” And my Shabbat dinners at 36 Lynwood do indeed serve as forums for lively discussion on any number of topics. But although Chabad, as well as Slifka, provides the raw materials for rich conversation on matters both religious and secular, in both locations the route to wisdom is a bit obscured by food and fun.

But there’s one Jewish group often excluded from campus discourse: Meor. My true Jewish affiliation at Yale lies with this smaller, lesser-known group. Meor is an organization for Jewish learning on college campuses across the United States, with the mission of exploring the “whys” of Judaism; it seeks to illuminate the relevance of Jewish philosophy for modern life. The Yale branch of Meor holds a weekly discussion group called the Vaad which addresses topics like inner calm and patience — topics that have concrete and practical relevance to existence at Yale and beyond. I have been involved with Meor since my freshman year and was lucky enough to go on last summer’s trip to Israel, a five-day whirlwind of hiking, rappelling, and cliff jumping, infused throughout with Jewish philosophy.

Meor, for me, solves the Goldilocks problem of Judaism on campus. Slifka does hold many educational programs and is my go-to location for Shabbat services and dinner, but I find it a bit too big and the range of program topics a bit too wide. Chabad’s degree of orthodoxy makes it somewhat inaccessible for me. The Vaad provides a cohesive, intimate and beginner-friendly exploration of how Judaism can offer a route to being a better human.

With the opening of its new building, Chabad may indeed be expanding this year, and I fully support the growth of various avenues for Jewish practice and education. But for those who are intrigued by the idea of practical Jewish wisdom, Meor may be a better bet. The rituals within Judaism — like prayer, bar mitzvahs and kosher food — are only one component of what it means to live a Jewish life.

Until the Vaad, I had no idea that Judaism has something to say about the little dilemmas we face daily. Jewish study offers wisdom for that moment when you really just want to finish that reading response and go to bed but your suitemate just came home and needs five minutes of attentive presence from you. Judaism can tell you not merely what traits a good person should have but what small, achievable steps you can take to acquire those traits. To me, that is the aspect of Judaism that needs to grow, at Yale and in the world at large: the parts that perpetuate not just ritual and bloodline, but stability and inner growth.

Reba Watsky is a senior in Branford College. Contact her at rebecca.watsky@yale.edu .

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