October 17, 2018

Owning Judaism in college

Going into the college application process, I didn’t want to go to a school that was predominantly “Jewish.” Who could blame me? I had spent 18 years of my life in Beverly Hills, one Jew in a town full of them. 

I hated the expectations that came with being Jewish in a mostly Jewish city, and years earlier I had refused my bar mitzvah to “differentiate my path” — though, it’s probably closer to the truth to say that Hebrew school would have taken too much time away from Little League. So I chose to be Jew-ish, with a heavy emphasis on the “ish.” (My immediate family didn’t celebrate Shabbat, but we’d pay our respects on Yom Kippur and help to throw an entertaining seder each year.)

Looking at my future, I couldn’t have been be more eager to be a Jew-ish fish, swimming in strange and uncharted waters. I picked Duke University in Durham, N.C., a Southern school with a Jewish student population of only 10 percent. I hoped the experience of living in such unfamiliar environs would help me to redefine (or simply define) myself.

I was well aware that my first year in college could be eye-opening, even revelatory. I’d heard the stories of kids who, upon leaving the protective bubbles of their hometown cultures and nearly two decades of parentally imposed ideologies, suddenly became Marxists or began to lead double lives, forced to hide certain elements of their newly acquired mindsets (or their memberships in secret societies) on their return home from their first semester.

I knew that college would be a profound experience for me, the next step in my journey toward developing my adult identity. Who would have guessed, though, that with this would come the completely unexpected opportunity to re-evaluate my Jewish identity?

At Duke, I was no longer a faceless Jewish kid amid a sea of Jews; I was one of only a few Jewish tugboats in an ocean of other belief systems. This was a radical contrast to the inescapable comfort of anonymity I had felt, and had taken for granted, at home. Finally feeling my minority status, I felt inclined to truly own my Judaism, and I became — in one semester at Duke — more in touch with my religion than in my 18 years in Beverly Hills. 

It started innocently enough, with my attending a few on-campus Jewish events (admittedly, at first, for the free food). This led to an increasingly close relationship with Rabbi Elana Friedman, and before long I became a regular at Duke’s Freeman Center for Jewish Life, a 17,500-square-foot building, with brightly lit seminar rooms, sanctuaries and a kosher cafeteria. 

With the guidance and partnership of the center’s administrators, I created and now co-chair an annual event that explores the Jewish identity of my generation as it is presented in the media, through a panel of Hollywood’s Jewish writers, producers, studio executives and performers who shape such perceptions.

I was even convinced — or did I convince myself? — to begin my studies to become a bar mitzvah during my time in college. (Everyone’s invited.)

I attended a couple of Shabbats and the High Holy Day services at Hillel. I participate in a program that welcomes incoming Jewish freshmen to campus. Just as important, I began to have more conversations about God, discussing what belief in God might look like in a modern-day context. 

None of this was part of my plan. I didn’t go to school to shape my Jewish identity. In fact, it seemed more likely that I would follow in the footsteps of those who, once away from the traditions of their homes, actually decreased their level of observance. 

After a freshman year of finding myself, defining myself, knowing myself, losing myself and rediscovering myself, I flew home from the Raleigh-Durham airport to the familiar congestion of LAX for the summer. Carrying with me a stronger, more concrete Jewish identity, I was finally able to begin to understand how special it is to be Jewish in this world.

Finally united with other Jews, Duke awakened my instinct to identify, protect and retain my religion. I remain a Reform Jew, Talmudicly questioning my relationship with God and the nature of our traditions; yet I have started to equip myself with the resources and information necessary to respect, honor and learn about the myriad interpretations of Judaism. Now I find myself able to appreciate the atypical experience of being Jewish in the golden shtetl of Beverly Hills, after having begun living and functioning in the Diaspora of Durham.

In the meantime, I fell hard for Duke. It is my second home, and it’s a place where I have been able to preserve, shed and take on new parts of my ever-changing identity.

I never thought I’d say that living in the South made me a better, prouder Jew, one who has begun to understand the nuances and attributes so important to my culture, my religion and my people.

Then again, I never thought I’d be so excited by the visual of dancing the hora in Durham.

Jackson Prince of Beverly Hills is a sophomore at Duke University.