What it Means to be Jewish: Rebecca Sobel '19

This is the second in a series of reflections on Judaism from current Princeton students. They were originally given as sermons during Yom Kippur services.


"When faced with the question, ‘what does Judaism mean to you’?, a sequence of memories flash through my mind. I see the V’ahavta poster on the bright yellow wall of my childhood room. Tables filled with braided bread and hot wax melting onto linen, as the light of the Shabbos candles dwindle. Late nights in small shuls, chanting words I wouldn’t understand for years to come.   

"On the first day of my 9th grade History class, my teacher asked that we encapsulate our identities in three words. Perhaps because there was a time constraint or perhaps because it sufficed, the paper I handed in simply said Jewish.

"The single word reflected varied experiences from throughout my life. At age 7, Judaism was knowing all the words to Adon Olam and belting them out in junior choir. At age 11, Judaism was the Star of David draped on my neck and the Shema bracelet cuffed around my wrist. At age 13, it was sweaty Dan Nichols song sessions that culminated in awkward first kisses. Freshman year, it was falling asleep in the CJL TV room and being woken up by Shacharit davening. And this summer, Judaism was the walk to shul on Saturday mornings and the Torah study that followed late into the afternoon.

"It is this diverse series of images, memories, and ideas which caused me to put off writing this speech for the last four months. I was in constant fear that by Yom Kippur, my perception of Judaism would have evolved yet again, and I would be left totally disagreeing with everything I had written.

"Little did I realize, it is that inability to pinpoint my definition of Judaism that most accurately describes what being Jewish has meant to me for my entire life, and what it continues to mean today.

"Growing up, I was fully immersed in Reform services and felt a constant, effortless connection to G-d. When my family made the sudden transition to an Orthodox shul, fifth-grade-me underwent an identity crisis as I began to question how my every day actions contributed to that relationship. For a long time, I was convinced that I’d only be a good Jew if I was an Orthodox Jew, but I had no practical means for making that transformation or sound reasoning for wanting to do so. Over eight years, my formerly strong Jewish identity seesawed between resolve and confusion, leaving me in a constant state of dissatisfaction. Coming to Princeton merely reinforced those emotions, until I began to evaluate the purpose of my practice.  Over the course of the past year, I’ve come to the realization that every day customs are far from insignificant, but their importance can only be fully recognized when they’ve been associated with a greater intent or a larger resolution; when the means represented by each action have ends, purpose or reasoning behind them.

"I've spent the past few weeks exploring that concept. Recently, I asked various members of the Jewish community why they practice Judaism in the ways that they do. Unexpectedly heated discussions arose, and responses ranged from a desire to fully fit in a community they love, to a willingness to accept that G-d’s advice is likely more sound than their own, to a firm belief that though individual rules may lack explanation, the net result of their actions will be more good in the world. Though I found some responses more compelling than others, these conversations didn’t leave me with concrete resolve or the answer to my questions. But that’s all right; in fact, it’s fundamental.

"For me, being Jewish is the opportunity to consistently reevaluate, change practice and belief, and constantly struggle to strengthen my relationship with G-d. Judaism is the time spent thinking; sitting on my bed and reading religious texts on the first Shabbat I’d ever kept, wondering what the words I was absorbing and the actions I was taking meant. Judaism is the different answers that question leads me to and the fact that my responses differ every time I ask it.

"My struggle is ongoing, but the very act of pursuing answers is satisfying in and of itself. As long as some personal rationalization exists, as ever-changing as it may be, I will keep practicing, and keep questioning. Throughout this year, I am confident I will continue to struggle on my journey to solidify my Jewish identity, and I hope you do the same.

"I wish you a year of challenging questions and potentially- satisfying answers. Most of all, I wish you endless strength as you continue to redefine your Judaism in ways that bring you closer to one other and closer to G-d."