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Teaching Judaism at CCNY

A new introduction to Judaism.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bernard Malamud graduated from the City College of New York (CCNY) in 1936. At the time, he was a typical City College student. He was born in Brooklyn to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents who worked 16 hour days in their family grocery store while he pursued the passport to the American Dream in the “Goldene Medina”–a university diploma.

Indeed, at the time, CCNY was known as “the Harvard of the Proletariat” because the doors to Ivy League educations were essentially barred to Jews.

Seventy-two years after Malamud’s graduation, I arrived at CCNY, but as a teacher, not a student. The 42 students in my “Introduction to Jewish Life and Religion” course were also primarily immigrants and the children of immigrants, however, most of them were not Jewish.

Rather, they represented a contemporary New York fusion: Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Seventh-Day Adventist; Egyptian, Venezuelan, Jamaican, and Asian. My Jewish students were Russian, Israeli, and second-generation Americans, many of whom were the children of at least one non-Jewish parent. And as I came to learn and experience during the time I was privileged to be there, these young people are generating a striking Jewish renaissance of their own. They have made Jewish Studies the fastest growing major at CCNY and offer extraordinary insight into the present and future of American Jewish life.

On the first day of class, I asked each of my students to write down two questions that had inspired them to register for the course. On every piece of paper–with different colors of ink, varying styles of handwriting, and names that told stories of distinct journeys–I found a recurring inquiry that I cannot, and will not forget. In some form or fashion, nearly all of them wrote, “Could Judaism have something to teach me about my life?”

In a country and in a time where every Jew is, in some way, a Jew by choice, this simple question, posed by as diverse a group as I have ever worked with, has left an indelible imprint on my soul as a Jew and as a teacher.

I have always believed in the enduring, inherent power of Jewish learning and in the importance of giving people quality access to that wisdom. But after looking at the extraordinary ways in which these young adults, representing so many faiths and cultural backgrounds, connected to and embraced Jewish texts and traditions as sources of meaning in their lives my eyes have been opened.

A first-generation Egyptian Muslim, an aspiring doctor double-majoring in Biology and Jewish Studies, linked his passion for scientific discovery with the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, saving human life. A first generation West Indian student, whose parents wanted nothing more than for him to be a doctor, found new strength in his struggle to choose a different professional path in a Hasidic commentary on Abraham’s decision to heed God’s call of “lekh lekha”–of going forth and leaving all that was familiar to him, including the identity “assigned” to him by his mother and father.

A Catholic Venezuelan student discovered new insight into her family, a connection to the place of her birth, to the city where she lives, and the future she wants to build through the Jewish concept of a brit olam–an everlasting covenant that requires people to consider past, present, and future in all decisions. 

Through these students and many more, I began to realize that there is something seemingly simple, yet utterly exquisite, that we, as Jews, have spent little collective time allowing ourselves to fully and fearlessly embrace.

A New Look at the Jewish Future

When Jews came to this country, they fought to have every door open to them. And while it’s true that those open doors have allowed Jews the freedom to walk out of Jewish life all together, they have allowed for a striking reverse flow of traffic; namely, people of other faiths wanting to walk in.  While some have entered through “intermarriage” or “out-marriage” (a term frequently employed in sociological research), others cross the threshold without a Jewish partner standing on the other side.  

In that spirit, a recent survey conducted by Steven M. Cohen and Lawrence A. Hoffman for Synagogue 3000 called “How Spiritual are America’s Jews?” reveals that one of the fastest growing “spiritual” communities in the United States are “Extended Jews-by-Choice”–people who have chosen to become Jewish not only “as a result of relationships with, or marriage to, born-Jews,” but also as a “personal journey of faith.”

Bearing this data in mind, while we have spent a lot of time and resources in American Jewish life worrying about and trying to prevent Jews from marrying people of other faiths, we have failed to focus on a growing and rather crucial reality. As I witnessed at City College, people of other faiths are asking the same question that many Jews are asking or want to ask, as well: “Could Judaism have something to teach me about my life?”

I know from a decade of experience as a teacher specializing in adult Jewish learning that the best way to empower Jews to ask is through study.  When Jewish people are offered the freedom to explore Jewish texts and traditions on their own terms, without the sense that there is a “right” answer, the answer almost always is, as it was for my non-Jewish students, a resounding, “Yes!”

By extension, my brief foray into teaching Judaism in a university setting has caused me to wonder if we should be spending more of our time and resources creating expanded Jewish learning opportunities for college students of all backgrounds, including Jewish students. If Jewish students can enjoy Jewish experiences with friends of other faiths, and if that experience is framed by a Jewish concept, it might spark true interest on their part to actively take hold of their Jewish lives, without “marketing” or cajoling.

Malamud’s Influence

Reflecting upon what I learned in my Introduction to Jewish Life and Religion class, I recalled an obituary I’d clipped from the newspaper almost two years ago. It was for Ann DeChiara Malamud, Bernard Malamud’s wife. When Bernard died almost nine years to the day earlier than Ann, they had been married 41 years, despite their parents’ strong protestations.

I read that Ann, who was not Jewish, had been her husband’s inspiration not only to begin studying Jewish tradition, but also to write the timeless stories and novels exploring Jewish identity for which he will be remembered forever.

This beautiful aspect of the Malamuds’ partnership in love and in life called to mind a line from one of Bernard’s best-known short stories, “The Magic Barrel”–the first reading assignment I gave to my City College students.  He wrote, “Only such a one could understand him and help him seek whatever he was seeking.”

I have 42 “ones” to thank for helping me discover and learn things I didn’t even know I was seeking. My 42 students reminded me that the Jewish community has barely begun to find all there is to be found of beauty, value, import, and meaning in Judaism. They have reminded me that dynamic engagement with Jewish texts has sustained us in the past and is our passport to a vibrant future. 

They have affirmed my belief that in an era of radical choice every Jew must be given the same freedom a non-Jewish student in an academic setting has to ask openly, genuinely, and honestly—without the specter of fear or guilt—what Judaism means to them. The multiplicity of revealing, empowering, and surprisingly impactful answers can guarantee that the Jewish sacred covenant remains an eternal one.

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