I'm part of a community bigger than myself

U of I Grads image
The author (bottom left) and her bus mates in the Dead Sea

Before coming to college I didn't really know what being Jewish meant to me. I celebrated Chanukah and Passover, I described myself as Jewish on college application forms, and I had as much fun throwing around what little Yiddish I knew as the next member of the tribe, but I didn't really feel a connection.

The past four years have changed that.

Now I'm a member of a community that's bigger than myself, bigger even than the University of Illinois. I feel connected to people I haven't even met because of the heritage we share, and it is that sense of connectedness that I will carry with me after graduation. 

Judaism is no longer just a check mark on an application, it's a part of how I think about myself and how I view the world. 

Graduation is scary because we have to move on, and for a lot of us, that means leaving the community we have created and fostered for ourselves over the past few years. 

Judaism doesn't define me, but it's a bigger part of my identity now, after college, than it had ever been growing up.

I don't regret waiting until I was older to explore the deeper, more involved facets of Judaism like observing Shabbat or attending services for the High Holidays. These things mean more to me now because I can understand and analyze the significance they have on my life. 

I'm a history major. All I do is analyze. 

Probably the most profound thing I will take away from my Jewish experience in college is the newfound respect and love I feel for Israel.

Graduating puts things in perspective. My religious identity is cultural, and Israel is the place I discovered what living Jewishly means to me. It doesn't matter that my level of observance doesn't match my neighbor; we share a common bond. The rest is semantics.

I want to go back to keep exploring the reason for this feeling of connectedness. Going on Birthright was a whirlwind; 10 days of no sleep, copious amounts of shawarma, new friends, and outrageous experiences. I came back and thought long and hard about what it was that made this trip different from others I had taken. 

Israel is marketed to Jews as a home. A place we belong. And I think the fact that I feel an intense desire to return so soon cements the idea that I'll nurture my Judaism even after I leave Champaign.

Before, being Jewish was a small detail, a checkmark, a very tiny part of who I was and who I wanted to be.

Now, four years later as I prepare to take charge of my own life, I carry my Judaism with me. 

Wherever I go, I am linked to a group of people, and that connection transcends whatever obstacles I am bound
to face.  

Aryn Braun graduated this spring from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in history.

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