Community Worth Fighting For
It’s my first Shabbat at Smith College. I walk into the Kosher Kitchen a timid, anxious, and very queer first-year. Students sit in a circle introducing themselves, and for the first time in my life, when we say our names, we also share our pronouns. She, her, hers. He, him, his. They, them, theirs. My peers talk about their queer relationships, and the upcoming queer Shabbaton and text study. I hear about their amazing summer adventures and the meaningful work they do to make the world more whole. I look around, and I think I may have found a Jewish community of my peers—of people just like me.
I grew up attending an unaffiliated synagogue in a suburb of Boston. My family was pretty secular: I was B’nai Mitzvahed and we went to high holiday services, but I was usually the one dragging my parents. I was always the youngest at the text study classes, talking and debating with the adults in my congregation. I never found community with people my age. Members of my Rosh Chodesh group were acquaintances at best, and even for my closeted self, BBYO didn’t feel like a safe space for a young, queer Jew. While I loved the values of tikkun olam and social justice that I had grown up with, there never seemed be a place I could be my full, queer, radical, intellectual self. That changed when I started college at Smith.
When I imagined myself at college, I never pictured weekly Shabbat services and dinners. I didn’t observe Shabbat in high school, or really… ever. I wasn’t “that” Jewish. But, when I came across the booth for the Smith College Jewish Community (SCJC) at the campus activities fair, I was lonely and missing home so I thought I would give it a try.
For the first time in my life, I began going to Shabbat services every Friday. “Jewish” became one of the major ways I defined myself. I became the Token Jew™ in my secular friend group. But after that first Shabbat at Smith, something didn’t feel quite right. I was in a community with Jews just like me but it wasn’t my community. I went to Shabbat Friday after Friday, and although I was desperately trying to connect I felt like I was failing. I struggled to find that sense of community I initially felt. I was intimidated by upperclassmen. The melodies were different than the ones I was familiar with. Instead of finally finding my Jewish home, I just felt my social anxiety rise to new heights. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I find community when my people were right in front of me?
It wasn’t until I was filling out SCJC’s mid-year feedback survey that it occured to me that I had the power to do something about my feelings of loneliness. “What would you change about Smith College Jewish Community (SCJC)?” loomed on my computer screen. And then it hit me: I could change my Jewish community. I wasn’t going to be silent anymore about the ways my Jewish community was failing me; I had already done that for nineteen years.
When I started speaking privately about my feelings, I realized that many other people felt the same way: my orientation leader, my friend from high school, my fellow first years. They were all feeling alone and unwelcome. They were all feeling like they were not enough for our Jewish community.
Newly empowered, I attended my first community board meeting. I got up at the front of the room, trembling, heart beating against my chest, and read a speech I prepared. “I am here because although being a member of SCJC has often felt hard, it is also a space where I can most deeply engage with my Judaism, and it is time I take ownership of that space and work to make it mine,” I said. When I finished people thanked me for speaking out. They asked me to get lunch. They hugged me. They saw me. And for the first time since that first Shabbat of the school year, I felt held by my Jewish community. Only this time I wasn’t an enthusiastic outsider looking in. I was immersed in my community. I was a part of this thing we were all working to build.
My speech did not change everything overnight, of course. But it did start a conversation. We talked about creating more inclusive siddurs. We discussed how to best bring new people into the space. We planned a Jewish-themed open-mic night, where everyone was free to share stories and poetry, whether or not they had come to services before. This community, the one I am working to re-envision is not perfect and it’s definitely not finished—building a kind, inclusive community is a lifelong undertaking. Given the recent racist incident at Smith, both SCJC and the Smith community at large have a lot of work to do before all students, especially students of color, can feel as safe and welcome as I have. But let’s just say I’m much more excited than anxious to return to Shabbat gatherings this year.
It would have been easy to just give up. It would have been easy to feel hopeless about how deep the problem seemed. But, I had seen a glimpse of what my Jewish community could look like on that first Shabbat. A radical, queer, and loving community—a place that felt like home. This was a community that could be mine.
Looking back, it was naive to think that I had stumbled on the perfect Jewish community. Community is not some unchangeable material object. It’s a collective of ever-changing and growing human beings. The best kind of Jewish community is not easy. It takes work to make safe spaces where everyone can be their full selves. I didn’t find my Jewish community on that first Shabbat; I found it when I decided not to give up on SCJC, and to stay long enough to make it better. The best kind of community is the kind that you stick around for, despite all of its flaws, because you believe it can become more whole. This is the kind of community worth fighting for.
How to cite this page
Karp, Sky. "Community Worth Fighting For." 24 October 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/community-worth-fighting-for>.