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Finding Judaism On My Own Terms by David Tapper

(Jewish Journey) Permanent link

About the prompt: JUF runs an internship for college age students to work at JUF or other Jewish agenecies and organizations in the Chicago area over the summer. This is called the Lewis Summer Intern Program (LSIP). Springboard reached out to the interns and provided a platform for them to share about  their different Jewish journeys. David Tapper, an intern on the Marketing and Communication department at JUF, shares in his blog below how he is Jewish beyond high school.  

Before starting college, being Jewish had never been a self-directed endeavor. My dad used to drive me to Hebrew school and my mom picked me up. My entire family would go to High Holiday services together. My life as a young Jewish person was organized by family, by synagogue, and by structured event participation. Being Jewish was about acting Jewishly.

Although I do retrospectively appreciate these aspects of my adolescent Jewish life, I can’t help but remember them as annoyances for my younger self. Admittedly, no one really wants to wake up early every Sunday for Hebrew school–unless of course Purim was approaching and the prospect of hamantaschen seemed promising. Going to synagogue, sitting through prayers, or fasting for Yom Kippur always felt like activities that I did because I was Jewish and because that’s what Jews do.

Last fall, I began my first year of college. Aside from the entirely optional Hillel and Chabad, there was no real sense of Jewish obligation. My family was back in Chicago–as were the directing forces of my religious life–and I felt the freedom to forget Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Even Hanukkah nearly slipped my mind. First semester flew by, and my Jewish identity narrowly hung on by the thread that was flying home for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. By December, I found myself with an even blurrier picture of my major, religious devotion, and identity. This isn’t to say that avoiding synagogue left me bereft of a sense of self, but rather that the freedom to forget which comes along with moving away from home removed the structure from my life, leaving a space to fill with my own structure.

In the last weeks of winter break, I decided to enroll in “Kabbalah: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.” Kabbalah changed my life. Kabbalah radically challenged, reinterpreted, and revitalized an aspect of my identity I had allowed to lie dormant for my entire life. Scholar Daniel Matt refers to Kabbalah’s foundational work, the Zohar, as a collection of “New-Ancient words,” reflecting on the central idea that the Zohar, in all its revolutionary inventiveness, seeks to draw upon primordial knowledge, upon truths which have always existed hidden in the words of Torah. Kabbalah also follows the Neoplatonic trend of viewing the human as a microcosm of the universe. As such, Kabbalah posits that these primordial truths exist within humans.

From Kabbalah, I have gained an intense interest in the history of Jewish thought, particularly with regard to the ancient wisdom contained within humans. I have spent this summer reading 20th century Jewish existentialist thought with my rabbi and thinking about how Martin Buber’s I and Thou and Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity take central themes of the Zohar and run with them. The conclusions are different, but the ideas are the same. Buber and Levinas build on Kabbalah, inverting its focus on the individual and suggesting that mysticism has a place in our everyday lives and relationships with others. 

I have discovered that Judaism has many paths of engagement and that for me, being Jewish is about learning to think Jewishly. The space in my life left unstructured certainly is not full–I doubt it will be anytime soon. But I have begun to plant seeds in hope that a verdant garden might grow in place of the barren structure that once was. Maybe someday my garden will be lush, and I can build up the old structure again, a trellis on which the climbing plants and fruit trees I have sowed may continue to grow.

David Tapper

About the Author: David Tapper is a sophomore at Brown University majoring in Religious Studies and Philosophy. David is interested in the history of Jewish thought as well as the nexus between philosophy and literature. At Brown, David is involved with the Religious Studies Department Undergraduate Group, the A Priori Philosophy Magazine, and the Old-Time String Band. After completing his undergraduate studies, David is excited to pursue further academic studies by attending graduate school for a masters and PhD in Religious Studies. This summer, David was a Lewis Summer Intern in the JUF Marketing and Communications department and participated in an independent study with his rabbi.

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