Since stepping foot on campus in 2014, an important part of my Jewish identity has been Chabad at Yale — an organization that prides itself in being a Jewish home away from home for students from all religious and cultural backgrounds. Since becoming involved in Chabad, I feel as though its community has given my Jewish identity a new sense of purpose and fulfillment. Shabbat dinners on Friday evenings quickly became my favorite part of the week, and I looked forward to debating a range of topics over food and wine with my friends and rabbis. I became president of the organization in January and have made it my mission to share my enriching Jewish experience with as many other Yale students as possible.
Earlier this year, I read the novel “Here I Am” by Jonathan Safran Foer. The title comes from the story of the Binding of Isaac: In the first book of the Torah, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his first son, Isaac, to which Abraham responds “hineni” — “here I am.” Abraham thus answers God’s call and accepts his responsibilities, demonstrating both his humility and trust as a servant of God.
Jacob Bloch, the novel’s narrator and a fictionalized version of Foer, finds himself in complicated personal, familial and communal predicaments throughout “Here I Am.” Consequently, he questions his responsibilities as a father, husband and American Jew. As the reader, I too wondered when my duties — grounded in my complex Jewish identity as a son, brother, grandson of Holocaust survivors and American — would lead me to say “hineni,” here I am.
The recent wave of anti-Semitism traveling throughout the United States — which has included bomb threats to different Jewish institutions and the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries — has come as somewhat of a shock to the American Jewish community. Over the past few weeks, I think of the Jewish families I know in each of the cities where schools, community centers and cemeteries have been the targets of deeply rooted hatred. As an American Jew, anti-Semitism was always a rare occurrence for me and was something I primarily learned about as the grandson of Holocaust survivors from Slovakia. Like most American Jews, my limited exposure to anti-Semitism came in the form of charged speech or writing, but never in real action or tangible threats.
In this time, the identity of American Jews is under challenge. I believed the United States would serve as a home where Jews could bury their loved ones in peace and send their children to schools to actively learn about their religion and culture without fear. While I still hold this to be predominately true, I think we must re-evaluate our responsibilities as members of the American Jewish community. This is a time to remind ourselves that anti-Semitism is still alive in all parts of the world. Especially at generally accepting institutions such as Yale, we can forget that our religion and culture is not accepted by everyone. Given this recent rise of confusion and fear, I believe my time as an American Jew to say “here I am” has come.
This past Friday, we welcomed University President Peter Salovey to the Bender Family Chabad House for Shabbat dinner. Salovey, who is a descendant of the well-known Soloveitchik rabbinical family, prayed maariv, sang, danced and ate with over 200 members of the Yale community. This event marked both the first time Salovey celebrated Shabbat at the new Chabad House and the largest dinner we have hosted since its groundbreaking in 2011. But more importantly, it reminded us as a community that we can still be proud of our unique Jewish identity despite the recent wave of anti-Semitism and corresponding feeling of disconnect or discouragement. Shabbat dinner with Salovey represented solidarity with the American Jewish community during this difficult time and highlighted our capacity to be conscious of and celebrate our Jewish identity, even if just for a few hours.
At Chabad at Yale, we say hineni. We are determined to maintain this sense of belonging and fulfillment we strive to instill in Jewish students from all backgrounds. No matter what happens in America and the world, we are just as focused on helping students lead Jewish lives during and after Yale.
Max Martin is a junior in Berkeley College. He is the president of Chabad at Yale. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .