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Outstretched Arms: A Mentor’s Lasting Impact

The other day, my daughter and I went to a children’s reading hour at a bookstore by our home in Washington, D.C. As I juggled stroller and door at the entrance, a woman pushing a stroller came up to us. “Hello, Orli!” she exclaimed. I was taken aback. Orli smiled. I’d never seen the woman before, yet she knew my daughter. Seeing my unease, she quickly explained that Orli and her baby sitter are regulars at a Monday to Wednesday morning library hour for toddlers. I’ve never been.

A Steady Hand: Professor Jeremy Zwelling helps Orli take a few steps. Image by COURTESY OF SARAH WILDMAN

That same afternoon, Orli and I were at one of our favorite parks, one of those urban playgrounds with a spongy floor where kids can run and tumble without getting all that banged up. I turned to introduce myself to a woman with a young boy. She said, “Oh, Max and I know Orli; she’s here all the time.”

Orli turned 16 months old on May 13. It’s not like she’s on her own.

But even at this young age, Orli has already had experiences and, more important, begun to develop relationships — outside of me, away from me and, more or less, without my say. It scares me a little, and, if I’m honest, it saddens me, too; but mostly it gives me a glimpse at the rest of our lives.

Forming an independent identity and creating healthy relationships is all a part of growing up. I can’t, nor should I, control everyone whom Orli encounters. Nevertheless, I can hope that there will be adults she meets throughout her childhood and early adulthood that advise her well. My dream is that she will find people who put out a strong hand and an outstretched arm — not to push, but to support.

For well over a decade now, two of those mighty hands and outstretched arms, both to me and to Orli’s father, Ian, have belonged to Jeremy Zwelling, the professor who, as one admirer said, “brought Jewish studies into the light” at Wesleyan University.

Zwelling is retiring this semester, after about 30 years at Wesleyan, and it was at his retirement dinner in Middletown, Conn., on May 2 — listening to the accolades; brushing back my own tears; absorbing the tremendous outpouring of love and affection from colleagues, family and a powerful contingent of former students — that I realized: I can’t control whom Orli will meet, who her friends will be or what her experiences growing up will be like.

But I can hope, for her sake, that she finds a mentor like Zwelling.

I met him my first year at Wesleyan, in a class called “Civil Judaism in North America and Israel.” Zwelling was “of my world”: Camp Ramah. Conservative Judaism. Israel. He attended Sabbath services — weekly. He managed to nurture those roots, and yet was able to turn outward and inward simultaneously, encouraging not navel-gazing, but instead reflective, thoughtful, self-examination and full engagement with the world. For the first time, I really understood how to be involved with the world around me while remaining rooted in where I had come from. Zwelling taught us how to approach and reconcile our own identities from a place of strength, to embrace Jewish history with enthusiasm and contemplation while avoiding parochialism.

Had that been the only class I took with Zwelling, one in which I began to question the role of civil religion in society, and the place of Judaism in that context both in this country and in Israel, it would have been enough. But happily, it marked a beginning. More than a decade later, during a spring when I lived in Vienna, his readings would stay with me. It was a need for civil Judaism that drew me to Israel that Passover, rather than remaining, alone, in ostensibly secular (but really Catholic) Vienna. I wanted to feel the holiday, in a way not possible in the rest of the world. Getting off the plane in Tel Aviv, I went into a cellphone store to recharge my phone. The salesman yelled out, “Hey, chag sameach!” As I walked away, I was reminded of Zwelling: When religion is integrated into the fabric of society, that’s civil religion, I mused, thinking fondly of that class.

Even if our relations had ended there, I would still hope that Orli would find a teacher like him in her life, one who took an interest in her as a student and nurtured her to look beyond what she already knew.

But they didn’t. Zwelling also ran a distinctive program in Israel that included 12 students from Wesleyan, Vassar, Trinity and Harvard, and unlike many programs offered, this one had a headstrong mission to teach both Palestinian and Israeli studies. We had professors from Birzeit University outside Ramallah, as well as from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We had cultural nights with modern Israeli artists, and political nights with those working to reform Israeli society from within. Our on-the-ground leaders were Beth Sandweiss, and her husband, Aaron Back, then director of B’Tselem, now the head of the Ford Israel Fund. Both have remained among my most important friends and guiding hands. I mean, they signed the ketubah at my wedding.

And so Zwelling brought me to an understanding of reality on the ground in Israel that would not shake my relationship to the state, but it was one that, in my mainstream Zionist upbringing, I had not known about, let alone internalized when I was a child. He introduced me to a world of people I otherwise never would have met, people who went on to become some of the dearest friends I have.

But more than all that, my partner and I have remained close with both Zwelling and his equally supportive wife, Vicky, in adulthood. He can still be relied upon for advice and comfort, but I am now also privileged to call him a friend as well as a teacher. I cannot know whom Orli will encounter in her life, but I can hope she will come across a Jeremy Zwelling — and that she has the foresight to recognize and cherish such a relationship.

Sarah Wildman writes about the intersection of culture, politics and travel for the New York Times and Politics Daily.

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