By Elisheva Goldberg and Hal Triedman
On a recent Friday, Jewish students from different schools around the country gathered in the Pembroke Fieldhouse for the first night of the Judaism On Our Own Terms conference. We arranged ourselves on pillows and cushions on the floor, spread out over the entire second floor. We distributed sheets with Hebrew and English versions of songs and performed the traditional Shabbat blessings, lighting the candles with a borrowed lighter and blessing the five different homemade challah loaves that friends spent the day making. We ate home-cooked lentils and pasta and then exchanged stories about our Jewish communities, comparing texts from the Bible and from contemporary Jewish scholars. Last Friday was the largest gathering of its kind, but these communities have been developing around the country for several years.
JOOOT is the national movement that facilitates the creation of Jewish campus communities, like Friday Night Jews at Brown, that promote sustainable inclusivity in North American Judaism and are independent from mainstream Jewish organizations, like Hillel. This past weekend, we hosted the second annual JOOOT conference. Last year, about 25 students from a dozen schools attended. This year, we welcomed over one hundred from 27 different schools. During the conference, we hosted sessions that covered a range of issues. We held discussions on how to engage with our Jewish diasporic identities and we studied Jewish texts to understand how our faith could inform our activism.
The main goal of the conference, however, was to make connections between independent Jewish groups to solidify our national network and to facilitate information and resource-sharing between our communities. Now, we hope that the attendees can bring what they learned last weekend to their own campuses and that our communities continue to grow. We look forward to planning our next annual conference; Jewish students across the country deserve independent, democratically-run campus communities. This weekend’s conference illustrates the genuine drive to build these communities.
Brown University’s Friday Night Jews is one those groups that answers the call from Jewish students on campus looking for a new way to connect with their Judaism. In 2016, a group of students at the University felt that there was no space for open discourse about Israel/Palestine at Hillel and that they were being pushed out of Hillel for their anti-Zionist positions. So, they started hosting their own Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, where the explicit goal was to host open dialogue on any issue relating to Judaism. This tradition led to the creation of FNJ. FNJ is organized by and for students, giving us the authority to shape our Jewish experiences and set our own agenda: During the biweekly potluck dinners hosted at off-campus students’ homes, we teach each other songs, chant blessings and facilitate conversations on any topic we choose. We have invested time, energy and financial resources to the space because it is something we genuinely care about.
Besides their bottom-up, loving natures, independent communities, such as FNJ, provide spaces that serve many other purposes. For instance, the subject of Israel/Palestine is incredibly politicized on campuses all across the country. We often feel like every conversation hosted by mainstream Jewish institutions about Jewish identity is either explicitly or implicitly about Israel/Palestine. As American Jewish college students, the pressure to have a fully-formed opinion about the issue is immense, and any answer one gives will alienate other community members.
In this fraught context, independent communities function as a bridge. Instead of pushing people into prescribed political boxes, they serve as a forum for engaging with our complex and differing opinions about Israel/Palestine. There are some institutional spaces at Brown that provide this kind of engagement already, like Brown/RISD Hillel’s Narrow Bridge Project, led by Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, associate University chaplain for the Jewish community. However, in our experiences, FNJ has also provided a necessary and nonjudgmental space for ambiguity, conflicting feelings and partially-formed thoughts.
Furthermore, Jewish communities often exclude, although usually unwittingly, Jews of color and of Sephardi and Mizrahi descent, erasing their experiences and marginalizing them. The backgrounds of community members are presumed to be white, upper-middle class and Ashkenazi Jewish – with ancestors from Central and Eastern Europe. Many mainstream Jewish communities have created initiatives dedicated to racial justice and equity. For example, Brown/RISD Hillel has created the Hillel Initiative for Racial Awareness and Justice, which hosts events and makes an effort to lift up marginalized Jewish voices. All the same, we feel that it is important to have more informal options for inclusive communities, that don’t make presumptions about politics, identity or their intersections. Independent, democratic Jewish campus communities like FNJ strive to create spaces that are inclusive to Jews of all backgrounds.
FNJ seeks to provide an open space for Brown and RISD students to have difficult and vulnerable conversations. We hope that, nationwide, independent Jewish communities will provide opportunities for Jewish students to engage with their identities in a way that feels more personal, nuanced and individually-guided. As evidenced by the groundbreaking turnout for the conference last weekend, students want a say in the directions of their religious communities. As stated in JOOOT’s mission statement, “the independent Jewish communities of today will foster the independent Jewish leaders of tomorrow.”
Elisheva Goldberg, one of the lead organizers of the conference, is a sophomore at Brown University studying Judaic Studies. Hal Triedman, another organizer for JOOOT, is a second semester junior at Brown studying History and Computer Science. We are both working to help inclusive, independent, and student-led Jewish communities grow and are excited to keep building this movement.
Also published in the Brown Daily Herald.