By: Michelle Naim  | 

Are You Crazy?

I think I’ve been called crazy approximately 43 times in the last two years. Let me explain. See, I come from a Middle Eastern background. For those that don’t know the connotations of this, imagine My Big Fat Greek Wedding on steroids.

My father left Iran when he was thirteen and started high school in New York, and my mother left Iran when she was eighteen years old to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in Sunnyvale, California. Like most Persian families, I was brought up with traditional Jewish values such as a love for Israel and being with family during prominent holidays such as Passover and Rosh Hashana. I went to Jewish school because my parents valued Jewish education. However, when it came to observing Judaism in my home, my father worked on the Shabbat and we drove to my grandmother’s house for Shabbat dinner.

So of course, when I told my parents I wanted to spend a year in Israel with the rest of my classmates, one can imagine that it didn’t go over so well. Many of my Persian counterparts were moving on to four-year universities or community college so my idea of where I’d be spending the year after twelfth grade wasn’t the norm to my parent’s standards, to say the least.

Before I decided to take the step to go to Israel, though, I asked myself if this was really worth it. Do I really want this, and more importantly, why do I want this? And although I was (and still am) too proud to admit it, I knew exactly why I wanted to go so badly.

I confess that even after ten years of Jewish education, I still didn’t get it. I was in all the higher-track Torah studies classes and I could open up a Chumash or Navi and intellectually understand Rashi, but I couldn’t answer bigger and more fundamental questions such as: Why Judaism? Why is this important to me? Is this even true? Can I even prove that God exists? If I was Christian, Muslim, or Hindu would I still believe as strongly as I did in my religion? Do I only take it as truth because it is the only truth I have ever known? I had all this education under my belt and yet I could not answer these basic questions. If I met an atheist on campus could I defend or have a rational argument about my beliefs? Could I have an honest conversation about my faith with Jews and non-Jews alike?

I pleaded and fought to go to Israel for months- it was not a given for me like most Jewish day-school graduates. After many “tea meetings,” which I organized approximately three times a week to speak to my parents, I also brought one of my greatest influencers to the table. One of the many ways I tried to convince my parents was by asking my Rav, Rabbi Lieberman, to speak to my parents. Once Rabbi Lieberman, a trusted Rav in my high school community and one of the many reasons I am who I am today spoke to my parents, they began to open their minds to the possibility that their only daughter might spend the next year of her life in the Land of Israel.

In the fall of 2015-2016, I attended Sha’alvim for Women, and I think I can call it one of the best experiences of my life. I made life altering and long lasting relationships with some of the greatest minds in Torah, and I was introduced to teachings of Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Lichtenstein, Rabbi Lamm, and Rav Kook. I made a siyum on Sefer Hakuzari, one of the most important Jewish philosophical works, and began observing new halachot after reading Halachic Man. Despite the attacks in Israel and the numerous calls from my sobbing grandmother begging me to return to Los Angeles, I refused and finished my learning in good health.

After my year in Israel, I hesitantly returned to Los Angeles to begin college. I quickly discovered, however, that I didn’t belong there. I missed my friends, I (surprisingly) missed having Jewish studies courses embedded in my schedule, and realized that I really took my Jewish education for granted. This was my last opportunity to take advantage of a post high school education when I wasn’t just doing it for the “A” but because I really wanted to understand and hold on to these sacred teachings. The realization that I wanted to continue learning post high school led me to the decision to transfer to Stern College for women this fall.

My year abroad also showed what I had missed in my high school years. Although I had an positive high school experience, I believe lower division schools can and must do better. Studying in Israel made me realize how much I, as one of the children who came out of Jewish high school, took my Judaism for granted. If lower division Jewish education systems catered to their students by opening the floor to deeper philosophical and theological questions, I would be willing to bet that kids graduating from high school will come out with a deeper sense of their Jewish identity. Either I am one of the few who questioned many teachings about Judaism, or others are feeling just the way I did and aren’t speaking up because they fear judgment. Although valuable and necessary, Chumash and Navi classes can only go so far. If our high schools opened up to more difficult questions, challenged their students, and believed in their potential instead of just teaching the “norm,” I would like to think the population of high school graduates would look and act differently than they do today.

While my high school taught me Torah, they didn’t teach me Judaism. Jewish education begins after high school when one is (hopefully) mentally and emotionally sophisticated enough to think, ponder, and question these huge topics that, although seemed very fundamental to me, are some of the most complex questions in Judaism. I hope that one day this will change, that one day our schools will be able to engage with their students in the way that the Yeshivas and Midrashot in Israel do with theirs. Until then, though, it seems as if the moment a child doesn’t have to go to school anymore is the moment that he begins to take responsibility for his Judaism. Crazy, right?