Judaism’s Only Sect
Politics are heated these days. Political views extend well beyond the reaches of the White House, expressing themselves in dress, hobbies, and other physical manifestations. Especially in religion, exteriors tend to point to things like labels and sects, creating a visual distraction from the truth that we are all one and the same.
Last weekend, I experienced what life would be like without these politically charged shells. I spent three days at Cteen’s 10th international Shabbaton with over 2,500 high schoolers from all over the world. Cteen, short for Chabad Teen Network, is an organization that brings together high school students from varying backgrounds with a focus on Judaic education, humanitarian work, and social events. The pinnacle of this year-long program is the international Shabbaton held every February in Crown Heights. Although the event was run by Chabad and held in Crown Heights, the majority of the teenagers who are part of this youth organization attend public school. Bringing teenagers who have little to no religious background into Crown Heights, a famously Chassidic neighborhood, for the weekend is no small undertaking.
When I was asked to chaperone a small group of girls from Atlanta, I was nervous. A few weeks prior, although I was not in attendance, BBYO held its own international Shabbaton at Universal Studios, with guest hip-hop star, Fetty Wap. I feared that my group, made up of teenagers with similar backgrounds to those in BBYO, would be expecting similar perks from their weekend in New York. I conjured up ways to make Jewish ideals such as being Shomer Shabbos and Shomer Negiah sound as exciting as Steve Aoki and Josh Peck. However, once I met the kids with whom I would be spending Shabbos, I realized that they did not care about celebrities and Snapchat stories; they came for a weekend of growth and substance. Instead of having to drag them to the various workshops and speakers offered by Cteen, my group went out of their own volition, even choosing to swap free time for more round-table discussions.
I wish I had been more like this group of youths in high school. While I spent my high school days trying to find a sect that I could cling to, these kids had no idea such labels even existed. We spent hours talking about religion and life and they reminded me of the importance of a person’s interior.
For members of a religion that emphasizes the importance of internalities, we too often find ourselves fixated on where we belong. Though exteriors allow for a physical manifestation of one’s beliefs and they help to solidify and encourage group unity, appearances tend to result in exclusion and scrutiny. In one of the many conversations I had with my newfound friends from Atlanta, I asked them if they knew what Chabad was. “They’re a group of Jews, right?” one of them replied. “Exactly,” I answered.
That response, though seemingly futile to the rest of the table, stopped me in my tracks. Those simple words “a group of Jews” sounded like the most revolutionary concept to me. This fifteen year old from public school could see more clearly through the religiously fueled political haze than some of the greatest minds of our generation. Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Belz, Satmar, or Chabad--we are all just “a group of Jews”. I cannot thank my group of teens enough for showing me how little categories matter.
“I’m a Jew and I’m Proud,” was the song of the weekend, instead of “I’m Chabad and I’m Proud” or “I’m Unaffiliated and I’m Proud”. Teenagers from France, Chile, Canada, and Atlanta sang these words at the tops of their lungs. At the end of the weekend, after we had all said our goodbyes, we went our separate ways -- leaving us as united as ever, having joined Judaism’s only sect: “Jews.”