A student who told me he wasn't Jewish came to a our Friday night service and asked me if he could attend the communal Passover Seder. Then came the big reveal
In my role as Hillel Faculty Advisor for about a decade at Ball State University, Indiana, many students and faculty contacted me because of an interest in Judaism, whether for research, teaching or studying help, because they were dating Jews or . . . for that invisible something.
While cleaning out some old papers, I came across a note one student, "Keith," had written me. His note brought back memories of this time very clearly.
"As I was explaining to the two Hillel officers I met the other day, I feel somewhat bad for calling myself a Jew. I never was Bar Mitzvahed...heck, I quit Sunday school at the age of 10...I don't think I could tell you a thing about Judaism. Lately, however, over the past few years, I've felt this drive to begin religious education again. My mom's side of the family is Jewish, though my parents are now Baptist. It's very confusing, and sometimes I just wonder if it isn't already too late to start over. If it isn't too late... I don't know where to begin."
Stories like this were all too common. Frequently, students told me that one parent had been born Jewish, had converted or assimilated. These students felt a pull towards Judaism and the Jewish people but their parents did not want to discuss Judaism. So the students came to me. What made these students feel Jewish?
One story was very poignant. A student who told me he wasn't Jewish came to a Hillel Friday night service and asked me if he could attend our Hillel Passover Seder. My husband I hosted a large Seder at our home each year for Hillel students. This student sought me out during my office hours and then sent me an email. There was something in his voice that convinced me to invite him.
After the Seder, he stayed to help clean up. It was then he told me that neither he nor his mother were raised Jewish. Yet throughout his childhood, "Jimmy" felt that he was Jewish, and always asked his mother, who consistently denied it. The question was resolved one day when his maternal grandmother, who was dying, called them both to her bedside.
"I am Jewish," she told them. She had left Europe before the horrors of the Holocaust had overtaken her, but her family had been obliterated. Determined that none of her family should suffer again because of being Jewish, she had told no one who she was. She started a new, non-Jewish life in the United States. "I hope you will still love me," she sobbed.
Why on her deathbed did she then reveal this secret? I felt as if the story had come from Spain, in the cruel years of the Inquisition. But it occurred in Indiana.
More curious to me was, why after two generations, would "Jimmy" want to be Jewish? He told me a bit more after the Seder. He knew nothing of being Jewish except for what he had read, but he said he always had known he was Jewish.
"It was a relief when my grandmother told me. And I told her so." He joined Hillel, attended our events and began calling himself Jewish.
That year, during Passover prep, I thought frequently about Keith and all these students.
I thought of him as I cleaned out my refrigerator, vacuumed the crumbs from my couch and when my own son, then quite young, practiced the Four Questions. How was I to help this young man?
I'm convinced that warmth and friendliness towards those interested in the Jewish people is the correct minhag, or tradition.
Therefore, when Keith reached out to the Jewish people through me, I responded in a welcoming manner. I told him that he had already become a Bar Mitzvah when he was 13 and didn't need a ceremony. I told him it was never too late. He was still hesitant and wrote back that he wasn't sure he should attend Hillel events. I had muddled over this for several days. What could I say to him that would convince him?
Then I thought of a conversation that my husband and I had with a rabbinic friend. We were discussing baalei t'shuva, "returnees," individuals who had returned to a greater religious observance from assimilation. Were they all returning? Some after all had never really left Judaism. My husband and I were really thinking of ourselves, then returning to observance.
In an attempt to explain what return meant to even practicing Jews, the rabbi replied that he liked to think of himself as returning each morning. Each day was an attempt to become a better person and a better Jew. So in that sense, we are all returnees.
Then I knew what I should tell Keith.
I wrote that our sages tell us that those who return are more righteous than those who have never left, because their road is more difficult. And that each of us strives to "return" or better ourselves every day. In his reply, Keith copied out my words. He said he had been very moved by what I had written, and had decided he would attend Hillel events, in particular, his first Passover Seder.
I once read a suggestion that we should amend the Passover Seder tradition of the Four Sons or Children, wise, wicked, simple, and one who does not know how to ask by creating a Fifth Child, one who is not present. This sad scenario is too often the situation, with intermarriage and assimilation distancing so many from the Jewish community.
As I thought of these students' desire to reclaim a tradition that had been absent from their lives, I thought of another, more optimistic shift for our Four Children of the Seder. In addition to remembering those absent, we should create another category: the Sixth One, the one who has returned.
In the Passover Hagaddah we read, "Let all who are hungry come and eat." Remember this Sixth Child, who desires a taste of Judaism. Invite each one and create a welcoming community around your table.
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