How A Secular College Professor Restored My Faith In The Jewish People

This is the first post in a series entitled “Five Men Whose Obsessions Made Me Love Judaism.”

I was optimistic, eager for growth, and a moving target.

After getting the initial Birthright inspiration surge, I returned back to the cornfields of the University of Illinois to continue my college career, but I was unable to ease back into the life that had given me a steadily sufficient amount of happiness previously.  I needed to leave. I needed to go to a place where there were more Jews, like me, keeping kosher and Shabbat. I no longer could handle traveling across campus to a small building where I pretended that I connected with ten other people who I had little in common with other than our shared abstentions from electronics on the seventh day of the week.

But where  to go? I asked a friend, and she suggested an East Coast campus teeming with 400 plus observant Jews. 400 plus! Imagine the Shabbosim we would have together!  I applied, got in, and after spending a month that summer in Israel soaking up Jewish ideas, changing my name, and hastily pasting together any clothing I could find that covered my knees and elbows, I went.

Like a farm girl colliding with the big city, I abruptly butted up against the darker, colder world of East Coast Judaism.

It was there that I was first punched in the face with jaded Jewry. These Yidden that had grown up in day schools and had been assigned their religious belief system while I was still singing and dancing to “Feliz Navidad” at my predominately Jewish secular elementary school winter sing.

Most of them were still observant; some more, some less.  They were learning. They were davening. They were doing it.  They were a fierce crew of combined intellect  and skepticism.

And they could smell fresh meat from miles away; the smell of someone who has stumbled onto their well-worn books and, uplifted from a verse, dreams that her world vision is transforming before her eyes. The type of person who wants to speak softly and wistfully at a Shabbos table about some little thing she just heard, and isn’t that so beautiful, and aren’t we so special to be Jewish and can’t you just see the redemption upon us ? The type of person who is desperately looking for support and guidance and inspiration from those around them.  In my vulnerable baal teshuva stage, I didn’t stand a chance.

What do you say to someone who can site more counter arguments from Torah passages than you? How do you argue with a man who was ordained an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi, then left his life and community behind to attend a  secular college, and while he still follows it all , finds it all so empty? That you learned something from a month in seminary and you can see something that he can’t? That fluffy ideas that cannot be directly sourced from the Talmud have some concrete relevancy to our lives?  And in the stuffy air of East Coast fashionistas, how do you stay inspired about Jewish peoplehood when you discover that you’re being judged more for your wardrobe than your character?

Truth be told,  there were good souls and kind people interspersed throughout the campus religious community. I would even say that most of the people were generally good people; just most of them didn’t want or were never taught how to open their doors and hearts to those at different stages than them.  They just didn’t have the time to swoop down to nurture a blossoming Jewess. Or maybe I was just too different than them; they, who had all grown up in similar circles, groomed to walk and talk and snub a certain way. Or maybe having an outsider come in all “on fire” called their own distant but obedient relationship to the Almighty too much to mind.

Whatever the reason, the general atmosphere of survival of the fittest was so diametrically opposed to the fertile ground of spiritual growth I had been accustomed to in the last year and, being in my infant stage of religious return, this new soil could not sustain my fragilely constructed self.

So as the months went on, my name slipped back to it’s English state, and I thrift-shopped my way back into light green suede pants and orange tank tops. I didn’t remember the person I had become a few months earlier, and I didn’t want to meet her again.  I wasn’t able to answer the questions of those who smirked at my naïveté, and I didn’t want to present myself like I could.  I continued to keep Shabbat, but that is where my Judaism lived; in the delegated 25 hour boundary demanded from Gd once a week, while the rest of my life was focused on other pursuits.

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Yet in the midst of that shifting, I continued to attend class. My favorite classes, Remembering the Shtetl and American Jews and the Media, were led by a man I jokingly referred to as my rabbi.

He worse no kippah, but when Dr. Jeffrey Shandler spoke, life’s mundane vantage point shifted.  Through his animated voice, we too started to see it as fascinating the predicaments that Jews and their surrounding cultures found themselves in.

He couldn’t stop talking because it was obvious these thoughts and wonders ran through his mind all day, and at last he was able to share them with us.  You got the sense that there was some incredible dopamine pulsing through his mind whenever he gave himself permission to discuss his research. He got an unparalleled thrill from pointing out the discrepancies from what are generally held beliefs on Jewish history and the complexities and nuances of what actually happened.

We spent classes talking about Matisyahu and what he was doing in popular culture that set him apart from other performers. We analyzed Seinfeld and the different dynamics of Jewish ideas and culture it brought to the table.  It was from Dr. Shandler that I learned the art and beauty of academic analysis, the challenge of calmly discussing things simply as how they interestingly differed vis a vis each other,  as opposed to my own emotional opinion on them.

When I  donned my Shabbos attire and walked into Hillel on Friday nights, there was a certain competitive intensity in the air. There was a receiving of tradition.  There was a yoke that bore down on us, and I, too, despite my reversal of dress and name, bowed to receive it. Judaism was a thing that was placed on my shoulders and something I dutifully carried on with me wherever I went.

But in class, with Dr. Shandler, his Jewishness bore so much more deeply into his being.  Because he was entrenched.  He was enchanted. His thoughts were always on the Jewish people and what they were up to. And he was always laughing about us. About how we stretched and thought and attempted to dig for ourselves a place in this crazy world. His heart was also always breaking for us. His respect went out to those who creatively looked for solutions to their predicaments. His wonder came from observing the ways in which different people methodically or statistically decided.  His fascination came from witnessing the continuous swing between the surrounding culture and the Jewish one, and how we could never live in a vacuum , because we were always bending and swaying and affecting each other.

To him, the Jewish people was not just a concept.  It was not just a yoke. It was a dance that was currently happening and he wanted in. He wanted to be in the hora of Jewish history and Jewish present and he wanted to dance around and videotape people and record their stories. He wasn’t interested in right or wrong. He was interested in people. He was there to listen, observe, and to try and notice patterns. And yet, he was more than an anthropologist or sociologist. For there was a certain compassion that he held as he listened and took notes. These weren’t just people he was observing. These were his people.

And I, coming to class, after shaming myself into dismissing my former lofty notions and purist lifestyle, suddenly found my place. I was one of his people, too.

While I remained peripheral at the campus Hillel or Chabad community despite being surrounded by hundreds of fellow Shabbat observers, there, in his class, we were in the same boat. Just some crazy Jew, trying to piece together his or her life, trying to understand from where we came and where we are going. Trying to creatively find a solution to expressing our beliefs and desires.  Trying to understand where we fit vis a vis the surrounding culture. Trying to see it for the dance that it was.

There, in the cold walls of the secular Jewish Studies building, I found warmth and chicken soup for the Jewish soul in a man without a kippah but a firm commitment in his heart to the beauty and hilarity of the Jewish people’s journeys throughout history up until this very moment. There, my soul lived.

You can view Dr. Shandler at

or browse his books at