Community, Culture and Religion: Judaism on Campus

December 7th, 2006

By Chris Lisee

It is impossible to enter Michael Faber’s office without taking note of the bookcase that lines the back wall. Books ranging from secular to sacred cram the wooden shelves. The rest of the office is just as crowded, with two couches, a table, a computer desk and cardboard boxes filled with newspapers, paperwork, and even more books. I found Faber at his computer when I first came to interview him for a journalism assignment. I had never met him before, but his sparkling eyes and sincere demeanor immediately put me at ease. So much, in fact, that I agreed to conduct an interview with him in his car so that we could both save time as he ran an errand. I was raised Catholic but was eager to learn about the Jewish religion. What captivated me more as the interview progressed, however, was the notion of “Jewish identity.”

Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, “It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read.” Religion should therefore not only be studied, but lived. The easiest way for this to be achieved is to live in a community in which religion and culture are intertwined. This is what Hillel: The Foundation of Jewish Campus Life, seeks to achieve. Faber, the Hillel director on the Ithaca College campus, believes in these notions, having spent his entire life connected to a Jewish identity. To him, this identity is a culmination of three aspects of Jewish life: culture, community, and religion.

Faber grew up in Queens, New York, in what he called “an observant Jewish home, but sort of a modern version.” His father was a conservative and open-minded rabbi. Faber said most Orthodox Jewish families would not use a switch to turn on electric lights on Shabbat because they believed it was analogous to lighting a fire, an act forbidden by Hebrew Scriptures. Faber’s father, however, had studied electricity in Europe and decided that, since flicking a light switch simply induced a flow of electrons, it was perfectly fine to use a light switch on Shabbat. It was this freedom of interpretation that showed Faber that good standing in the Jewish community is not solely determined by strict religious adherence.

Today Faber balances three jobs at Ithaca: Hillel director, Jewish chaplain and professor. He teaches two courses per semester, one in modern Hebrew and one in meditation, a course he created four years ago. He admits that his workload is heavy, stating that his job is more than full time.

“It is very rare to find a Hillel director who is also on the academic side,” he said.

Yet he continues teaching, joking that he needs the meditation class, otherwise he would never be able to relax.

Faber functions as a chaplain for the Jewish community at Ithaca College. In addition, he serves other clerical duties for the college and community, including marriage and burial.

At times a crisis arises that demands Faber’s full attention, weighing heavily on his already crammed schedule. One crisis came recently with the death of senior Danielle Goren.

“Since Danielle Goren died - a member of my community - the last few weeks [I] feel like I’ve been working 80 to 90 hours a week. But I’m not complaining,” Faber said.

He did admit that having an extra person on campus to help him would be useful. Nonetheless, Ithaca Hillel has flourished under his direction.

Michael Faber’s job goes far beyond leading services, a virtue of the fact that the Hillel organization embodies both culture and religion. In fact, Jewish identity, according to Faber, is not so much based on religiousness, but a combination of Judaism and the secular traditions of the Jewish people.

“We’re not just a religious community, we’re also a cultural community, so we’re trying to do a lot of cultural and educational and emotional programming as well as offering religious services or instruction,” he said.

In spite of this, Hillel is only one place to keep up with a Jewish identity that Faber says is first realized in the family.

“The primary site for living a Jewish life and the transmission of a Jewish life is not the synagogue; it never was. It’s the family,” says Faber.

When a student leaves his or her family behind to attend college, what happens to this “Jewish life?” This is where Michael Faber steps in. To him, Hillel acts as a surrogate family for all those away from home; it is a community of acceptance and learning. For some, the organization fosters the Jewish identity by providing a community that supports the same issues and believes in the same ideas as the community at home. For others who were never exposed to such a lifestyle, the Jewish identity is discovered through the community of Hillel.

“We’re just trying to get students to exercise the option of their own heritage and realize that they’re the next link in something that’s been around a long time. When you want to break that chain, you know, no guilt, but what a heritage!”

The idea that a student who rejects a Jewish life is denying his or her entire history is perhaps hyperbole, perhaps not. Either way, Faber believes that the Jewish identity is worth maintaining.

Faber estimates that about 50 percent of Jewish students on campus probably grew up without a strong sense of Jewish community. For some it may take tragedy to realize the importance of community. Faber remarks that it took the death of Danielle Goren for some students to realize “the value of Jewish community,” adding that many Jewish students grow up without the closeness that comes with “ties to a synagogue, Jewish Community Center, a Jewish Y, even secular stuff.”

Regardless, today’s secular culture is driving away some individuals from the community, something that Faber finds problematic.

“Our secular culture,” said Faber, “is the culture of the individual, and Judaism is a culture of the community.”

With so many choices between courses, activities and religion, it is easy to get lost. To some, Judaism and its culture is seen as trivial, rather than an important life choice.

“Jewish is no longer sort of an existential condition. It’s an option, so Hillel’s job is to get Jewish students to exercise their options in one way, shape or form,” Faber said.

Like his father’s idea of electricity, Faber professes that students should find faith for themselves; they should test that faith and participate to the highest degree that they wish, so long as the consideration behind the process, the conscious decision, is based on a Jewish ideal. In essence, Jewish experience is based on what you make of it.

“In the modern world now, in the 21st century, Jewish identity isn’t just one culture,” he said.

College presents the opportunity for young adults to pursue their religion for the first time, continue practicing or let faith wither away. But for Jewish students, it doesn’t just have to be about faith. The cultural aspects of the Hillel organization allow students to be as involved as they desire. The community, too, offers a shoulder to cry on or a friend to share joy with. The culmination of these three aspects form the “Jewish identity.” Faber’s job at Ithaca College is to help this identity grow, and help students find their own voice, so they, too, may participate in this worldwide exchange.

“What a thing to inherit—a long religious tradition [and] a long cultural tradition that has been woven from strands of culture all over the world,” Faber reminded me.

Who would want to abandon that?

Chris Lisee is a freshman journalism major. Email him at clisee1[at]ithaca.edu.

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