Furrowed brows and ruddied cheeks — they were all around me. It was a Thursday, just two months ago. I brushed past the raucous throngs of café-goers at the Bryn Mawr Campus Center and felt an unforgiving chill flurry across my spine as I sifted through the faces, each more riotously disapproving than the last. I flipped through my mental Rolodex of things I had done that week to see if I could identify anything potentially harmful in the way of optics – I had skipped a few dinners with friends, posted about my husband-boyfriend on Instagram, and ah! I had just resigned from the Bi-Co Chabad House board of student leadership. Come to think of it, a lot of those caustic countenances belonged to some of my closest Jewish friends with whom I had served on the board.
My mother grew up in an isolated Haredic (Hasidic-adjacent) community. There were merits, to be sure, but overwhelmingly the experience wrought indelible religious trauma on a young girl who was only Jew-ish. Yet she acquiesced and went through all the motions, in quiet hopes that she was only performing these religious rites for a portion of her life. And finally, college. When my mother was in college, she ate a bowl of Lucky Charms, then a thing wholly unkosher. The moment the spoon touched lip, per her revisionist parents, Judaism escaped her body, slipping out like a last breath (or a first gulp). And it was her reflection I saw when I scarfed down my first serving of matzo ball soup at one of the inaugural shabbat dinners at the Chabad House. All my life, I had been brought up atheist. And it wasn’t until Haverford that I felt a pressing need for all the answers to the existential questions first-year students inevitably pose to themselves: why am I here? Why should I be here?
September 2022. Enter the club fair. “We’re a Jewish student life organization. Here’s a cookie with all our information on it.” I was sold. Chabad, in my preliminary understanding, was a nexus of Jewish cultures and theologies, a convergence point of all walks of life. Plus, they had free food – not too shabby. So, I went to a shabbat, thinking I was vindicating the faith my mother so vehemently rebuked. The Chabad House would later rebrand themselves a “home away from home,” and in a sense, it was. I felt welcomed, lulled. Whatever this space was, I had already initiated myself into it.
January 2023. “Come take a free trip to learn more about where you come from.” Reasonable enough – and so I partook. Little did I know, Birthright was Birthright. I was not a self-proclaimed Zionist at the time, but I was not anti-Zionist, a thing for which I am still learning to forgive myself. I had never taken the time to educate myself. And it was only when I had finally set foot in Israel that I knew I didn’t belong there. We grazed war sites and were accompanied by six members of the IDF. In a game where we were asked to hierarchize the elements most important to a person’s Jewishness, there was an option for “supports Israel.” It was one of the most commonly placed cards in the deck. Soldiers nonchalantly rattled off their lethal routines.This was not an effort I could support – it was vile, detestable, morally objectionable on a good day.
And so, in the place where I was told I belonged most, I felt like I belonged least. Shortly after Israel, not thinking Chabad would arrange for any more Zionist programming, I was appointed a board member and took to making a name for myself, quickly becoming the resident speechmaker, regularly making appearances at shabbat dinners to pronounce some covenant I had unwittingly entered. My words were hollow. These breathy musings carried me into October, when the Israeli-Palestinian tensions had come to a head, and then, the text – scratch that, the Text.
October 2023. “We need ALL board members to show up for our community. Vigil tonight.” While the event was not explicitly Zionist, being termed a “unity vigil”, subsequent messaging implied support for Israel and focused heavily on antisemitism resulting from the conflict. I didn’t feel comfortable holding a candle for genocide. And yet, I wanted to leave on good terms, so I gave only half-baked answers when asked what motivated my departure. There is little I regret more than not having outright stated my stance when I formally submitted my letter of resignation, October 9th. I allowed cowardice to eclipse a moral obligation to be explicitly empathetic to the Palestinian people – here is my chance to make good on that resolve to speak out.
So let me say, loud and proud, I am Jewish, and I support Palestine and all its people. Birthright was not a trip to Israel, but to Palestine. I am not a passing fancy amidst a radical fringe minority but an instrument in the global symphony clamoring for Indigenous peoples’ rights. To be sure, I have experienced antisemitism – but mostly from other Jewish students, who have ousted me for my belief in humanity. This position is not the product of defecting from or reimagining the faith, but the greatest celebration of it and its championship of peace and charity.
My departure from Chabad was not my departure from Judaism. I have faith, if not in the divine then in people. Incubating in Haverford is the spirit of revolution, which some have so bravely realized through protest and demonstration. May the tides of justice roll in.
Correction: This article originally stated that the vigil Chabad hosted was a vigil for Israelis. The author has since provided clarification regarding the nature of the event.
Correction: Photographs of conversations between the author and Chabad board members & leadership were removed. The Clerk apologizes for the error in including these images, which were provided by the author to provide additional context for the piece.