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Building a Jewish social life after college

06/26/2014

Jessica Korneff photo

I once read that the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 15 percent of the campus population is Jewish — meaning that about every sixth bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived student you bump into on the street is statistically a Jew. Outside of Israel or Brooklyn, this is about as good a ratio as it gets.

Overall, UW had ample opportunity for me to meet lovely Jews from either the suburbs of Chicago, the suburbs of Milwaukee, or the suburbs of New York — a fact that causes my elder relatives to curse at me for not grabbing the first Jewish boy I met by the throat and conniving him into becoming my husband.

Despite this apparent gold mine of fellow MOT, I didn’t take to Jewish student life right away. I didn’t have any Jewish friends, and crowded Shabbat dinners intimidated me, even with the glowing promise of four-course meals. In fact, I didn’t find a Jewish niche in Madison until I traveled across the globe to Jerusalem, ensnared a couple of fellow Badgers into my friendship, and then sheepishly forced my way into their Jewish circles back at school — all in all, it was a process, and a lengthy one at that. 

Because of this, leaving my comfortable and warm nest at Madison was doubly painful when I realized I would have to recreate my Jewish social life from scratch. After years lingering outside the Hillel building like a bashful pup, finding a new Jewish community seemed almost as daunting as the dark and morbid job search. 

As much as I would love to escape to Israel again and find more friends to fling open the doors to Jewish social life, I realize this is neither a mature nor feasible approach. So, I’ve thought about where I can turn to:

1. My local, suburban synagogue. A logical choice, as it’s close in proximity and I already have several connections there. The flip side of this particular coin, however, is that these decades-long connections have seen me progress through each painful, awkward stage of puberty — essentially, hefty chunks of my life that I’d like to slough off like a heavy winter coat in June. Sitting at Shabbat dinner alongside the ghost of my sulky, sweater-clad 16-year-old self is definitely something I was hoping to avoid. Forever.

2. A Jewish interest group. Unfortunately, I’m sorely lacking in hobbies, which is another, separate issue I should probably confront.

3. The city Chabad house. But here we encounter the same problem that tormented me and countless other college freshmen – how do you muster up the courage to make the first fateful step to enter?

The simple choice here is just to stay at home. I’m not all that religious, and in all likelihood would not feel a moral vacuum at neglecting services. Most of the friends I’ve ever made have not been Jewish. I can barely even mumble along to a prayer. 

Yet, I still find myself drawn to the idea of community.

Long, long ago in biblical times, Abraham was known for being quite the party host. He would famously drop whatever he was doing (herding, chatting with God, etc.) to scrounge up a meal and clear some room for every traveling nomad approaching from the horizon. As one of the fundamental characters in our religious history, even his core tenet was the mitzvah of hospitality.

From a spiritual point of view, Judaism has always been community-based. Throughout the Torah, we’re constantly reminded that we are never alone — we have a responsibility to help others, and have a network of people with a responsibility to help us. From its emphasis on finding a life-partner, to glorifying not just the study of Torah but also its teaching, Judaism is fundamentally centered around community.  Ultimately, as humans, we cannot thrive if we’re utterly alone, and Judaism seems to take this fact into account. An enormous chunk of our religion is based simply on bringing people into the fold.

Whether it’s to find a Jewish soul mate, experience gloriously never-ending meals, or to reflect on spirituality, everyone has a different reason for wanting a Jewish community. And while the practice of hosting weary travelers is a little less applicable now than it was in Abraham’s day, the idea remains.

For now, I’m not exactly sure how my Jewish community life will pan out. What I do know, is that while I probably don’t qualify as a “weary traveler” and am not a nomad, there’s an empty seat at a Shabbat table out there somewhere, and I’m determined to find it. 

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