May 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Different Sort of Summer, Part 2: Pluralism

This is a story about one boy’s struggle to survive as the “establishment” deprives him of a simple, essential human need. He didn’t expect to be put to the test, but when it became clear that he couldn’t escape from the dire situation, he rose to the challenge.

That challenge… was being deprived of dairy dinners.

As I write this, I’ve been attending the BIMA Arts program at Brandeis University for nearly a week. The thing about Brandeis, exclusive to this summer, is that while it has a kosher and non-kosher dining hall, the kosher dining hall is currently under renovation, so a non-kosher hall had to be used for the participants. So while the staff must’ve made all of the equipment kosher (the program is Jewish), they couldn’t make it work or have enough equipment to serve both meat and dairy. So any hot food at breakfast is pareve and any lunch and dinner is meat, fish, or vegetarian.

The struggle of cheese withdrawal is real.

To be honest, that’s my main gripe about the program right now (and perhaps the air conditioning situation, but that’s a whole other topic). I have pretty much nothing but good things to say about BIMA so far, from the friends, the classes, the activities, the campus and so on. (And no, they are not paying me to write this.) As much as I’d like to gush about all of that stuff, there’s a part of BIMA that I’d like to talk about more specifically, and that is pluralism.

What is pluralism? The dictionary definition of pluralism is “a situation in which people of different social classes, religions, races, etc., are together in a society but continue to have their different traditions and interests” (Merriam-Webster). To me it’s something more than just a situation; it’s a new way of thinking, a new paradigm for life. Let me explain.

I’ve been in situations before with Jews of varying degrees of religiousness and observance, especially during high school. I’ve gone from living in a bubble where everyone keeps Shabbos and kosher to living in a world where some do and perhaps many don’t, and that’s fine. However, BIMA, and its sister academic program Genesis, which shares space and programming, are the first places where I’ve really felt the presence of so many different opinions and levels around me. It goes beyond the simple categories of Orthodox, Conservative  and Reform. There are people here who believe in God, people who don’t, people who do in different ways. There are people here who adhere strongly to Orthodoxy, others who’ve decided to be culturally Jewish, and still others who don’t want a connection at all.

It’s led to some interesting discussions that wouldn’t happen in an ordinary, purely Modern-Orthodox setting. Does God exist? If so, does God care? How do we connect to Judaism? What is the purpose of halacha nowadays? Should we be observant or not? Sometimes I do feel a bit uneasy hearing opinions I strongly disagree with. Sometimes I choose to respond, and other times I let the other person have his or her say, depending on the circumstance. (For instance, some people’s beliefs that I disagree with have been influenced by personal circumstances, and it’s not my place to judge that or to preach to them.) It’s not that we’re arguing; it’s not that I or anyone else is here to push any agenda. But when the programs are Jewish and yet open to any denomination, obviously there are going to be differences; what I appreciate is being able to discuss and be open about these differences—we don’t need to hide them, but we can deliberate them and learn more about each other and about Judaism itself.

The pluralism also connects to where people come from. We’re quite an international group. Of course there’s plenty of people from the United States, although from all over the country (New Jersey, Colorado, California, Massachusetts, Florida and so on). But there’s also a lot of people from the FSU—which we thought meant “Florida State University” when we read it in the schedule, but actually means “Former Soviet Union” (mainly Russia and Ukraine). There are also plenty of Israelis and even one boy from Colombia and two from Germany.

There is a lot of novelty in talking to people who come from so far away from you. My grade in school had an Italian exchange student this past year, and it was a lot of fun to learn about his country and culture; at BIMA/Genesis, that’s no different. But it’s also intriguing to talk with people with accents different from mine (which is pretty non-existent, now that I think about it) and realize that, as cliche as it sounds, we really aren’t so different. We may have different cultural norms and beliefs, but we can find ways to connect and to live together. We’ve been able to integrate as a group without getting rid of what makes us each unique. And I find that very important.

I’m not planning on changing my Jewish beliefs or observance level right now, and I’ll be staying in the United States for the time being. But I do appreciate getting to be exposed to different types of beliefs and Judaism and to people from all around the globe. It makes me feel that I’m growing as a person just by being around them and being able to expand my horizons beyond anything I ever imagined before.

I think this is something everyone needs to experience at some point. Not BIMA or Genesis specifically, but being exposed to different beliefs and types of people. Many of us, particularly at a young age up until we head to college, live squarely in the Modern Orthodox world and don’t get a taste of other ideas. There’s merit in that—it keeps the rituals and halacha alive and well—but also pitfalls. We lose the chance to be able to have challenging and rewarding dialogue, and to understand different perspectives. We believe that our beliefs are “right,” but why do others think theirs are “right”? And that’s the key to pluralism, I believe, which is something everyone should get a chance to experience.

Oren Oppenheim, 17, is a rising senior (yes, he did survive junior year!) at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist and a journalist. He is currently attending the BIMA Arts program at Brandeis University, majoring in creative writing and minoring in animation. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at facebook.com/orenphotography.

By Oren Oppenheim

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