The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am going into my junior year at college this fall and for the first time will be living with non-Jewish, and therefore non-kosher and non-Sabbath observant roommates. Honestly, I am excited about this as I have been surrounded by mostly Jews my whole modern Orthodox life and look forward to creating deeper friendships with people a little different than me. My older brother says it will be impossible to really keep kosher, and that by being around non-Sabbath observant people I will probably stray a little. He didn’t say it in a judgmental way, but I felt that the message was still that I am crazy to think I can be Jewish around non-Jews. Is he right?
STEVE COHEN: Your brother has a point. A long and growing literature points to the effectiveness of “social networks” — one’s family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and associates — to shape and reinforce attitudes and behavior.
We have LOTS of evidence that for Jews, the presence of Jewish family, friends, and neighbors is strongly related to Jewish engagement. If, as a sociologist, I could ask someone only one question to estimate their level of Jewish engagement (in all its fuzziness, to be sure) I’d ask, “How many of your close friends are Jewish?” The proportion of one’s friends who are Jewish better predicts Jewish engagement than does in-marriage/intermarriage. In the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, undertaken for the UJA-Federation, we found that single Jews are only slightly more active in Jewish life than intermarried Jews with no Jewish children home. Both share the same characteristic: They have no other Jews in their household, meaning no readily available people with whom to “do Jewish.”
In 1969, esteemed sociologist Peter Berger wrote: “Unless our theologian [religiously committed individual] has the inner fortitude of a desert saint, he has only one effective remedy against the threat of cognitive collapse … He must huddle together with like-minded fellow deviants and huddle very closely indeed. Only in a countercommunity of considerable strength does cognitive deviance have a chance to maintain itself. … The countercommunity must provide a strong sense of solidarity among its members … and it must be quite closed vis-a-vis the outside (“Be not yoked together with unbelievers!”). In sum, it must be a kind of ghetto.”
Now, in some instances, a time-limited exposure to non-believers can, indeed, fortify one’s commitment. But, over the long run, Orthodox Judaism — and other ways of being deeply Jewish — demands a community of practice and values.
Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.
REBECCA LEHRER: It’s so exciting that you are opening up your world to get to know people who are different from you. I promise it will make your life richer.
Your question breaks into two parts: How do you keep kosher and observe Shabbat in a new, heterogeneous environment? And, what does it mean to be Jewish? BIG QUESTIONS.
With regards to keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, your brother is right: this will be harder than before. Harder, but very doable. You will have to be more intentional about your choices. But participating in a new non-Jewish community does not mean closing yourself off from Judaism.
As my modern orthodox friend wisely said: “We are not a people closed solely in a book. We have a lot to share — and also a lot to learn.”
My recommendation: Do both. Make sure you connect with an observant community where you can find support whenever necessary. Go to Hillel for lunches or other gathering places. But also invite people into your traditions. Explain kashrut to them, or invite them to join you for a Shabbat meal or to unplug with you on Saturday while you guys eat a picnic together in the quad. The joy with which you approach your rituals and traditions will be infectious. It will be the beginning of many late-night conversations, beautiful mixed-faith seders, and explorations of identity. Learn about their traditions.
As a Jew who celebrates Shabbat (but is not shomer Shabbat) and does not keep kosher, my hope is that you will also take a moment to consider how you framed your question. You implied that being Jewish is defined by keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, and I hope that your experience meeting people — both Jews and non-Jews — outside of your Orthodox community gives you a broader sense of how individuals can be Jewish and live Jewish values. This journey may be challenging, but it will undoubtedly deepen your understanding of your faith.
Rebecca Lehrer is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Mash-Up Americans, a website and consultancy representing the hybrid culture and new face of America. The Mash-Up Americans is exploring Spanglish, kimchi + more, just not on Shabbos.
SCOTT PERLO: There’s half a verse from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that goes “a wise person has his eyes in his head.” (Kohelet 2:14). It sounds like your brother’s are right where they belong. Yes, your observance will change by living with people who are not.
I started becoming religious around the age that you are now. When you’re Ba’al Teshuva-esque like me, you assume that you’ll be on mitzvah overdrive for the rest of your life.
It doesn’t work out like that. The people with whom you share your life — especially if you live with them — have an effect on both the amount and style of your observance. There’s only so many times you can ask to keep the bathroom light on before you find unorthodox solutions to your housemates’ absentmindedness.
But I learned some irreplaceable lessons from being observant in an unobservant world: I learned for what to fight, and what it takes to create a Jewish life; I learned how to explain what I did, and discovered that sometimes I needed to learn to explain it to myself. I learned about the necessity of community; I learned to be creative and irrepressible in finding ways to make my yiddishkeit live. I think you may learn too.
So go in with your eyes in your head, and you’ll be just fine.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.