Jewish In Madison: Suddenly an Ambassador – Noah Brown

It’s still fascinating to me that the only interactions my res hall friends had had with Judaism before meeting me were a water bottle sticker that said “Shalom,” and maybe Seinfeld. Stepping into Madison from my Jewish world of northern New Jersey, it had never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t know what Shabbat is or that there’s more than one branch of Judaism. I was the first Jew almost all of the students on my floor had ever met. Suddenly, I was being asked “What is a Shabbat?” “What’s the little hat for?” and my favorite of all: “So what do you guys believe?” 

Despite growing up in a community where the average Jewish Literacy was well above the American norm, I was unprepared to answer those questions—I doubt anyone really is. I had the responsibility to sum up all of Jewish culture, practices, and beliefs in these conversations, all while qualifying that I represent only a portion of modern Jews.

Uncomfortable at first, I pointed them to Wikipedia articles: unsurprisingly, assigning out-of-class readings wasn’t wildly popular. At this point, I caught myself reading an introduction to Jewish literacy just so I could answer questions like “Are Jews cool with birth control?” and “Why do some Jews dress like they’re Amish?” (I’m sure their search history was even more colorful).

One night, most of my floor was in our room, some just coming back from their weekly bible study, some reminiscing about how much they hated waking up for church. We wound up talking about where we’re going after we die—my roommate was convinced that his cheating on a 6th-grade vocab quiz a one-way ticket to hell—and as they got into sharing their sects’ views, I took a shot at sharing a Jewish perspective. Compared to the random q&a’s that had tripped me up, here we had something to work off of. With that space for dialogue, it was valuable and even fun to explain how some Christian practices like baptism stem from Jewish practices like the tevilah/mikvah.

Though it may seem obvious and though it took me a while to figure out, the times I was best able to share my faith with others was when we were discussing their beliefs—when we were sharing and relating, rather than just explaining. It’s still daunting to boil down millennia-old rabbinical debates into a few sentences explaining why, no, I really can’t eat the cheeseburger (even if it is from Culver’s). Two semesters later, it’s clear to me that I owe a lot to programs like the CRGC, Hillel, Chabad for connecting me with both Jewish and non-Jewish students. I credit the spaces for cultural exchange that these orgs provide for giving me a lot of that confidence to be a passionate, approachable, and knowledgeable ambassador for Judaism on campus.

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