This is the first in a series of reflections on Judaism from current Princeton students. They were originally given as sermons during Yom Kippur services.
"Freshman year, I spent Rosh Hashanah on the trail. The high holidays came much earlier that year, and fell in the middle of my Outdoor Action trip – a four-day backpacking journey along the Appalachian trail with a small group of soon-to-be freshman and non-freshman leaders. I knew I would stay on the trail to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, but I had never before practiced Judaism in such a manner. I had to lead myself in prayer, in the manner that I determined. I had never before conducted prayer on my own, let alone for something as important as Rosh Hashanah, and so praying and blowing the shofar on the trail was a daunting way to celebrate the new year.
"Being Jewish as a young student entailed participating in an active community of worship and study. From second through eighth grade, I attended a Jewish day school. During that time, I lived and breathed Jewish learning. I could tell you when each holiday was – in the lunar and solar calendars – and where to go in the siddur for a certain prayer. (Now I rely on CJL emails for holiday dates.)
"At Princeton, I embedded myself in the Jewish community. I wasn’t sure how being Jewish would affect my daily student life, unlike when I was in a Jewish day school, but I knew that my experiences would be enhanced by engaging with Jewish students and leaders. I joined the 2017 CJL Class Council (to organize study breaks for our freshman class), engaged in two semesters of Jewish learning fellowships freshman year, joined Kesher and Tigers for Israel, and ate regularly at the CJL – not only for Shabbat meals. All of my different Jewish experiences – in small academic communities, in a community of worship, and in the broader Jewish community – constituted to varying degrees, for me, building community.
"I am also engaged with two broader communities: the University and town. Most meaningfully for me, I have sought to connect the three communities I inhabit at Princeton. I have participated in faith-based service to the Princeton and Trenton communities, Muslim-Jewish Dialogue to meet another community in an inter-faith setting, and Jewish fellowships to enrich my understanding of philanthropy and public policy with a Jewish text-based perspective.
"While I reflected on what it means to me to be Jewish, I realized that Rosh Hashanah on the trail illustrated my Jewish identity. I had been raised to envision being Jewish as a shared experience, and as a guided process, so praying on the trail challenged me to engage with Judaism without guidance. When I woke up on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I did not start services at a pre-determined time, I had no allotted time to get through prayers, no list of prayers that I was going to cover. So I had breakfast with my backpacking group, and went to one side of the camp to pray until I got through everything I thought I needed to.
"But why am I talking about celebrating the new year on the trail, if the general theme is Judaism as community and shared experience? My self-guidance during Rosh Hashanah demonstrated the power of individual prayer and learning. But the truth is, I was never truly alone on the trail. I prayed with one other person, and we helped each other through the Rosh Hashanah service. It was a shared worshipping experience, albeit one I have not experienced before or since. On the trail and away from home, I found someone with whom to observe the holiday. I also found a stronger identity within my faith, because where I had previously sought guidance, I now found comfort in leading myself in prayer, and later on at Princeton, in learning and faith-based service. I think the basic rule of a minyan – 10 people need to be present in order to hold a minyan – illustrates the dynamic I felt on Rosh Hashanah that year, and how I have felt since. Because a minyan requires 10 people, it affirms to me that Judaism is inherently comprised of shared experiences, as it takes a group to properly worship G-d, and demonstrates that each individual is important and unique within such a group because a minyan cannot start without each of the 10 worshippers. On the trail, then, and in my following Jewish experiences, I have sought to engage and contribute to communities of learning, worship, service, and friendship. And I have done so with a more nuanced and confident individual faith, to participate and contribute my perspective while simultaneously drawing on and learning from others’. So when I think about what being Jewish means to me, I think about my experience on the trail during Rosh Hashanah, and my experiences during my time at Princeton. Jewish community is important to the individual and the faith, and can be found even in places as distant as the Appalachian Trail. As I have explored my identity through Jewish learning and community involvement, being Jewish also entails celebrating the diversity of perspectives and contributions that each individual bring to the community."