According to Jewish thought, life is a spiritual journey that leads individuals through moments of pleasure and pain, inspiration and struggle, enlightenment and confusion in order to build a better relationship with Hashem. A Jew should never feel comfortable with his current position in the physical and spiritual worlds, but instead must constantly evaluate his actions and philosophies to better align with what G-d desires of him.
Still, in the struggle to find ultimate truths, the pull of short-term material pleasures constantly beckon. Do not get me wrong. Everyone deserves an occasional porterhouse steak or trip to the Bahamas, but material delights do not push the soul to greater heights. The value of that which is tangible depreciates to nothing in time.
As a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I know very well how hard it is to find and hold onto spiritual inspiration. The majority of people in this academic environment look largely to the scientific method for truth, and therefore do not appreciate acts of faith or the wisdom of Jewish teachings. Most of the time, I feel I must keep secret some of the morals and values that I have decided to incorporate into my life in order to succeed in this world.
For the last two years, for instance, I have wrapped tefillin almost every day. But when I wake up in the morning, I lock my door and whisper the Shema so that my roommates don’t hear me. So many times, I am afraid of being ridiculed for practicing a tradition and a truth that I so greatly appreciate. My personal struggle, therefore, has become, “How can I live my life as a student of Jewish beliefs, while at the same time carrying credibility with my Jewish friends who so ardently disagree with me?”
Taking the Plunge
In an effort to try to answer this question, last November, I went to Crown Heights to experience the Chasidic culture for three days. Over the past five years, I’ve built strong relationships with Lubavitchers and have grown to admire their ability to love their fellow Jew. From Rabbi Shmaya Shmotkin’s and Rabbi Avremi Schapiro’s families in Milwaukee to Rabbi Mendel Matusof’s family in Madison, to one of my dearest friends Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm and his family in Boulder, Colo., I have been surrounded by mensches. They not only live the teachings of the Torah, but also dedicate their lives to helping others uplift their neshamas, their souls. Because each one lives a totally transparent Jewish life, it only made sense for me to observe the home base of their movement. I wanted to seize this opportunity to leave my comfort zone while trying to find the same truths that Chassidim illuminate across the globe.
Although admittedly such an experience would push me out of my comfort zone, with an open mind and searching soul, I walked into Chicago’s Midway Airport with nine other friends to begin the journey. Just after sunrise, we sat down in the terminal and waited for our plane to arrive. I looked across the way and saw Rabbi Matusof, who directs the Chabad House at the University of Wisconsin, deeply engaged in prayer while wrapping his tefillin.
Never in my entire life have I dared to wrap tefillin publicly unless a rabbi spotted me out and did it for me. This time, though, it was different. I decided that, as small an act as it was, this was the time for me to prove to myself that I’m proud to be Jewish. For the first time in my life, I wrapped tefillin in front of people that I did not know. Better yet, it was in an airport, where hundreds, if not thousands, of people were walking around. Within the first five hours of the trip to Crown Heights, I was squarely facing my personal challenges.
This one act opened me up to an ease of internal acceptance that made the rest of the weekend phenomenal. I got to spend time with learned rabbis and students for 72 hours. We sang niguns, danced and celebrated the simple fact that we were together. Matisyahu, the self-described Chasidic reggae superstar, made appearances on Friday and Saturday. We were content to be in Crown Heights together, and the change in culture did not bother us. Everyone felt connected to the same purpose, and that purpose was simply finding ways to exercise our long neglected Jewish souls.
From Father to Son
Chasidic discourse teaches that man’s relationship to G-d is like a child’s relationship to his father. The father loves each individual child with the same amount of passion; so too does G-d love each person equally. When we were together in Crown Heights, there was no disconnect between the Chassid and college student. Everyone was united as one, happy to share in the welcoming of the Shabbos.
The experience inspired me to feel proud of my identity all the time, in so many ways. I no longer separate myself from my Jewish identity because of my secular environment; instead, I try to work with my environment in order to connect more closely to my neshama, hopefully becoming an example for friends and family.
Upon returning from Crown Heights to my apartment in Madison, which I share with six other students, I needed to act on my newfound resolve. With Chanukah soon approaching, I knew I had an opportunity to openly express my Jewish identity for all my friends and neighbors to see. I decided to use the inspiration of the trip to spread Hashem’s light through the kindling of the Menorah. For seven of the eight nights, I even got to share the ritual with people other than my family, and even placed the lit menorah on the windowsill every night, so that anyone who walked by could see.
For the first three nights, I not only prayed outside of the confines of my room, but I also wore a kippah while doing it. On the fourth night I even explained to two of them the fact about the significance of tefillin. On the fifth night, I came home from the library at 5:30 in the morning after pulling an all-nighter in preparation for an extremely important test. Still dark outside, I was drawn towards the menorah. My soul was yearning to light the candles. On the next night, exhausted from still no sleep, I lit the candles with the help of a good friend, who despite declining the invitation each night before, on this last night before winter break came to me to join in the lighting of the menorah.
This was a true miracle of Chanukah in my eyes. As with my airport experiment weeks before, my friend let go of his self-image and, even if he didn’t realize it, decided to connect with his inborn Jewish soul. My commitment to spiritual growth became a tool for his growth, and more importantly we were finally able to share in the performance of a mitzvah. On the last night of Chanukah, topping everything off was a visit by my parents. We basked in an eternal radiance.
The crown we are given reaches heavenly heights, far above the mundane, forever making the ordinary holy.