Faith on Campus: The Critical Role of an Orthodox Campus Community

by | in Education

By David Wolkenfeld

Emunah has two clear meanings in Tanach, neither one of which is exemplified by what we tend to associate with “faith” in a specific dogma.1 Emunah in Tanach can mean trust (as in Genesis 15:6, Numbers 20:12, Deuteronomy 1:31) and it can also refer to integrity (as in Deuteronomy 32:4). These understandings of emunah are helpful when contemplating university students. In the five years I served as an Orthodox rabbi at Princeton University, it was rare for students to come forward to discuss challenges to their faith regarding the truth of the ikkarei emunah, the dogmatic assertions of Jewish belief as codified by the Rambam and others. But one could easily see the relevance of emunah in its connotation in Tanach.

Students arrive at university campuses and, some for the first time in their lives, must choose whether or not to reliably and conscientiously affirm the values and lifestyles with which they were raised. Will they live with emunah? Can they be trusted and relied upon to affirm the values and religious practices with which they entered university? Students must incorporate their new knowledge, friendships, experiences and choices into their prior Jewish identities. Do they do so in a way that displays emunah—integrity and ethical coherence? Do the external markers of Orthodox affiliation translate into a consistent pattern of behavior and manner of interaction with peers and professors?

This dual definition of emunah—becoming a reliable and trustworthy link in the chain of Jewish life and integrating new experiences and choices into a Jewish identity that has integrity and ethical coherence—is the very heart of what we wish for Orthodox university students. And there are strategies to help cultivate emunah of this sort.

Rabbi Aaron Greenberg, JLIC educator at York University in Toronto, giving a shiur to students. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Greenberg

Rabbi Aaron Greenberg, JLIC educator at York University in Toronto, giving a shiur to students. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Greenberg

Peter Berger’s book The Heretical Imperative explains that traditional beliefs collapse not in the face of logical arguments that counter them, but in the face of a changing “plausibility structure” that assumes a contrary understanding. A college student may never hear a logical argument denying the possibility of Divine Revelation or deconstructing our embrace of the sanctity of Jewish family life or undermining Zionist pride rooted in millennia of indigenous Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael. Instead, a student will sit through courses and conversations with peers in which the entire context of the conversation presumes—without ever resorting to an explicit argument—that these elements of Orthodox belief are false.

This is why being connected to a campus Orthodox community, attending public shiurei Torah and minyanim, is vital for maintaining emunah in a way that might not be true for a conventional community of adults. Starting and ending each day with tefillah b’tzibbur (something that both men and women do while at college), punctuating the week with shiurim and chevrutot, creates an alternative plausibility structure in which remaining a reliable link in the chain, demonstrating emunah, is normal and assumed.

Students at Guelph University in Ontario lighting Chanukah candles on campus. Photo courtesy of JLIC educator Rabbi Daniel Levitt

Students at Guelph University in Ontario lighting Chanukah candles on campus. Photo courtesy of JLIC educator Rabbi Daniel Levitt

Likewise, when rabbis and Jewish educators from high schools or yeshivot speak of their confidence that their students will make wise religious choices on campus, those students see themselves as possessing emunah and being deserving of that trust. When I served as campus rabbi within the rubric of the Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), I helped facilitate that alternative plausibility structure while also serving as proof of the community’s investment in the religious reliability of Orthodox university students. The community would not send Orthodox rabbinic couples to university campuses if it did not fundamentally believe that Orthodox university students were “worth” the investment.

Integrating the experiences and perspective of the university campus into an Orthodox Jewish worldview and lifestyle in a way that displays ethical excellence and religious coherence is something I consciously tried to model for my students. Because my wife and I each attended university and incorporated the experiences, knowledge and skill-sets of our university educations into our professional lives as Jewish educators, we hoped that our presence in the community challenged our students. We tried to agitate them to embrace the experiences, wisdom and friendships that can only be found on a university campus, and then to drag those ideas back to the beit midrash and construct an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle that is itself a living example of emunah.

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, together with his wife, Sara, directed the OU’s Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program at Princeton University from 2008 to 2013. He is currently the rabbi at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago.

Notes

1. Yoel bin Nun, On Emunah and Its Opposites (Hebrew). Available at ybn.co.il.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2013.

Leave a Comment