Navigating Community, Identity and the Human Condition – Max Bibicoff

I applied to be an interfaith fellow for the 2019-20 school year from the apartment I shared with my five roommates in downtown Tel Aviv during my spring semester abroad. I’ve been involved in campus Jewish life for the past three years, and the time I’ve spent within my community has significantly informed my identity throughout college.  

Growing up in a relatively unobservant, reform Jewish household, I had a narrow view of Judaism as equating to weekly Hebrew school classes, which I loathed, and sitting in synagogue bored out of my mind during high holidays. I have no doubt that many of the other fellows have had similar experiences of relating to their religious background through mandatory attendance at services and classes. Looking back, I realize that the spark of interest that later turned into my exploration of Jewish identity was probably always there. That barely detectable spark throughout my pre-adolescent years just needed some room to breathe. Eventually that supply of oxygen came after my bar mitzvah, when my parents made good on their end of the deal they had brokered with me long ago: they would no longer require me to go to Hebrew school after hitting this milestone. 

Around the same time that my formal Jewish education had ended, my family gradually stopped attending holiday services at our synagogue. In the years following, I couldn’t help but notice that my Jewish friends still went to temple with their families. What I initially perceived as being liberating grew into a sense of confusion about why my own parents seemed indifferent about adhering to tradition. In time, this lingering sense of disillusionment with my newfound freedom from religious education and community collided with my interest in politics and history. My lack of relationship to Israel seemed slightly baffling to me, and at some point in high school, I couldn’t ignore what was at that point obvious: I wanted more of a connection to Judaism.

In college, I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of a Jewish community, though I was reluctant and embarrassed to show how religiously inexperienced I was. I am proud of the inclusiveness of the Jewish spaces on this campus. I, myself, felt like somewhat of an impostor as a freshman, so I owe a lot of credit to the spirit of inclusiveness and non judgment that I was met with. It is these two qualities which enabled me to withstand the fear of looking clueless and engage with a new world of people and topics. To paraphrase author Yossi Halevi Klein, every faith has its own dangers to be wary of. For Jews, one of these dangers is exclusionism. The future of the world will be largely determined by our ability to look beyond the subjective labels that differentiate us. Differences must surely be celebrated, but I also believe we must always keep one eye to our common humanity. 

Over the past few years, one of my greatest passions has lied at the crossroads of modern psychology and eastern contemplative traditions. I grew up with absolutely zero knowledge of Buddhism. Today, I find myself ever fascinated about the potential of meditative practices and their attendant philosophies to reconnect people, particularly in western society, who have been culturally severed from the natural world. All of this is to say that as a 2019-20 Interfaith fellow, I bring with me the perspective of someone who has surveyed the landscape of my own tradition and has ventured into foreign territory only to discover that my passion is primarily for humanity’s transformative potential. I’m excited to learn from the unique experiences that all of the fellows bring to the table.


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