(Creative Commons / U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

“Are any of us actually Jewish?” my friend asked, putting down her wine glass and glancing around the table. Packed like sardines into Emory’s Chabad tent, all ten of us laughed, noting that only two of us had even a drop of Jewish blood. 

Even then, my friend and I weren’t Jewish enough to justify going to Shabbat dinner at the Orthodox Chabad house. When fellow Chabad attendees ask me if I’m Jewish, I respond, “barely.” I grew up attending Passover Seders at my aunt’s house and celebrating Hanukkah at home, but beyond that, I can’t speak for Judaism. Before coming to Emory, I was more Jewish in tradition than in practice. Judaism represented community and family and home; not God or repentance or worship. Yet, my friends and I return every Friday to load up our plates with noodles and listen to the rabbi speak on God and repentance. We drink wine and stay respectfully quiet as the rest of the attendees sing in prayer. We chat with the rabbi’s children as we wait for the restroom. At Emory, I’m more Jewish than I’ve ever been before.

Before this year, I wouldn’t have set foot in a Chabad house; I disagree with many of Chabad’s principles. My half-Jewish, “two holidays a year” upbringing is a far cry from Orthodox. But still, I find it immeasurably valuable to attend Shabbat dinner at Emory Chabad. Familiarizing yourself with  — and learning how to mindfully disagree with — different cultures is a vital part of growing up. And while attending a Jewish event as a non-Jewish (or barely Jewish) person can be read as appropriative, approaching the experience with inquisitiveness and respect — which means not treating the event as a means to get free food and drinks — can prevent appropriation. 

Chabad is, for context, an Orthodox Jewish movement that, unlike other Hasidic groups, embraces modern technology. It interacts with the world beyond its cloistered religious community with active chapters at many universities. Emory’s Chabad house advertises itself as “a place where every Jew is family,” but this hasn’t gone without scrutiny. For instance, Chabad follows practices like modesty and gender-separated prayer, which many argue is oppressive to women. It also preaches an extreme literal belief in the Torah, which means that what’s written in the holy book is the word of God and is incontestably true. Chabad is additionally criticized for subscribing to the prejudiced view that a Jewish soul is more sacred than a non-Jewish soul. The organization also supports Israel and the Israeli Defence Forces, which have been tied to militarism, brutality, and dispossession. As a history major in the College who understands the importance of protecting human rights, I am at odds with a few of Chabad’s fundamental principles. 

Yet despite the clash between my personal morals and the ideology of Chabad, I have never felt uncomfortable at Emory Chabad. The dinners have been nothing but inclusive, thought-provoking and fun. Exposing myself to a different culture, meeting new people and spending an evening connecting deeper with the tradition in which I was raised are all deeply worthwhile parts of Shabbat dinner. Even without internalizing the preachings of the rabbi and praying or singing along with the rest of the group, there are still lessons to be learned from such an experience. 

College, and college programs like Chabad, are about surrounding yourself with people who come from unfamiliar circumstances and hold different views. I came to Emory not only to gain a degree and a wealth of knowledge about my field of interest, but also to become a more informed person about cultures unlike my own. What better way to familiarize myself with another culture than to submerge myself in weekly religious festivities? By sitting in the Shabbat sukkah and sharing a meal with Emory’s most observant Jewish community members, we gain key insights that help us understand an exclusive religion. Judaism doesn’t proselytize, after all. The only way to be Jewish is to be born to a Jewish mother or to convert under Jewish law. Emory Chabad’s inclusivity and generosity isn’t meant to convert non-Jewish students, it’s a way to teach the greater student body about a misunderstood cultural tradition. And while it can very easily sound unethical –– or bordering on cultural appropriation –– for non-Jews to attend a religious event that offers free food and wine, I genuinely believe that most Chabad attendees are well intentioned. There are easier ways of getting food and drinks than hiking all the way to Emory Village, after all, and sitting through two hours of prayer and song is a weird way to pregame. My non-Jewish friends attend Chabad to make friends and learn something about another faith. So perhaps, through spaces like Chabad, bridges can be built between cultures. Only then will religiously-motivated conflicts be resolved.

So while I don’t entirely agree with the Orthodox ground on which Chabad was built, I appreciate the public forum Emory Chabad offers for students to engage with Judaism. I like that it allows me to interact with the Emory community over a delicious, family-style meal. When I’m homesick for my dad’s cooking and longing for the childhood excitement that accompanied the High Holidays at home, Chabad fills a void. As my time at Emory carries on, I want to continue engaging in other cultural traditions that broaden my worldview, so that I can emerge from college as a holistically educated individual. School doesn’t end when you leave the classroom, after all. Anybody who considers themselves a student of the liberal arts should consider doing the same. 

Sophia Peyser (25C) is from Manhattan, NY.