College presents numerous opportunities and challenges for young Jewish adults in American society. In many ways, these opportunities resemble those that the Jews of France encountered when the government first offered Jews political emancipation-a time of untold newness.
In sophomore Jewish history, we recently staged a debate about the central question, "Was the emancipation of Jews in Europe and their recognition as citizens of their countries of residence a good thing for the Jewish people?"
Using primary and secondary sources, the students launched into vigorous debate, both sides acknowledging just how much of a game-changer emancipation was for the Jewish people.
At the end of the debate-and believe me, a little bit of productive competition does wonders for our students-we discussed how as American Jews we have to answer the question of "Was the emancipation a good thing for the Jewish people" with an enthusiastic YES!
This is our reality, in 2014 America, nowhere more-so than on a college campus. This gives us more responsibility to define our Judaism in positive terms than ever before.
One anecdote for how we do this: For the second straight year Chicagoland Jewish High School (CJHS) made the Sweet 16 of the Illinois State Basketball Tournament.
Not only did the State Athletic Association push the basketball game from Friday night to Saturday night so our team could play, but thanks to many phone calls, they moved the game to eight o'clock so that our fans could make the one and a half hour drive to Serena, Ill., after the conclusion of Shabbat.
As I said on Shabbat morning to our team, before the Prayer for our Country, I can't help but think American civil liberties are as alive and well for Jews in America as they ever have been.
On that Shabbat, our basketball team and families held a Shabbaton about 15 minutes from the stadium where the team would play on Saturday night. We brought food for 50 from Garden Fresh Market, borrowed six hot plates from community members and set them up around the meeting room of the Ottawa, Ill. at the Holiday Inn. Our students, faculty, and family members led services, including Shabbat morning with a full Torah reading and stirring Dvar Torah by the father of one of our senior players. On Friday night, we sang traditional z'mirot (songs) and also made up new verses to the song MiPi El. After Havdalah, we caravanned out of the Holiday Inn, following the bus to the stadium. It felt a bit like Friday Night Lights.
How do we prepare students to engage with the complexities of college life? By providing models both inside and outside of the classroom for fostering relationships in a community of content.
In the words of our recent accreditation team, our school brings "its mission to life by fostering critical thinking, relationship building, and engaging with the complexity of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world."
By developing critical and deep thinking in each of our disciplines, by trusting our students, and by creating space for our students to relate to their peers and teachers, we provide a model that students will return to in their lives in college.
As sophomore Aviva Hirsch reflected in her conclusion of the debate:
"As experienced, integrated students of CJHS, we understand the significance of fusing thorough secular studies with a strong Jewish education. It is our duty as American Jews to stand as committed, accomplished citizens of the country, while preserving the religious and cultural identity of the Jewish people. Therefore, throughout history and today, political emancipation is a can and must for Jews everywhere."
Rabbi Zachary Silver is the Rav Bet Sefer (school rabbi) of Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield.