2015 Cole Essay Contest Winning Essay
Destiny vs Choice: My Jewish Future by Sam Dolen
I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve been part of a group that has been asked the question, “What makes a person Jewish?” And the answers are always the same: from having a Jewish mother, to actively practicing Judaism, to becoming a B’nai Mitzvah. Often the question is then followed by an intense discussion about the different ways a person can be a Jew, and I’m always left with the same sense about my own identity: what makes me a Jew is simply being a Jew.
My father is Jewish, and my mother, whose father is Jewish and mother is not, was raised Jewish and officially converted before she got married. There is not a question in my mind as to whether or not I am Jewish or whether or not my family is Jewish. But what is a question in my mind is whether or not my family will continue to be Jewish. My sister and I are essentially the last Jewish children in my extended family. It has become a trend in all three branches of my Jewish family to assimilate and allow Judaism to die out. The majority of my grandparents’ generation married outside of Judaism, and their children were not raised Jewish. As a result, I have cousins who are baptized Greek Orthodox, others baptized Roman Catholic, and many who practice a variety of Christian denominations. A few are being raised with two religions, Judaism and Christianity, but my sister and I are the only exclusively Jewish family members in my generation left.
I worry about this. What if my sister and I fall in love with non-Jews who are determined to raise their children in a different religion from ours? As the only boy in my generation with the last name Dolen, what if I don’t have a son to carry the Dolen name? The Dolen line, started when my great-grandfather, Jakob Dolinska, stepped off the ship from Russia onto the shores of Ellis Island at the age of seventeen, would end, and with it, a significant connection to my Jewish history.
My extended family is filled with opinionated, liberal, and mostly secular people. I am accepted as a practicing Jew, and I would be accepted if I weren’t practicing. There is no pressure from my grandparents to marry a Jewish woman or raise Jewish children. Given this, it seems that it is my destiny to allow my Judaism to die. I might as well forget about Judaism now and focus on my career and social life, right? Why limit my options? When I have kids, why do I want to isolate them from their cousins by raising them Jewish? Why make them different? The evidence is stacked against me: destiny is telling me that raising Jewish children is not the way to go.
But there’s one factor that my destiny doesn’t see coming: my choices. The choices that I make now will determine my future. I have many friends who once considered themselves Jews but now identify as agnostics or atheists. I could have easily made the same kind of choice, but I didn’t. I’ve made Jewish choices. I have surrounded myself with Jews in Jewish environments, by attending Jewish summer camp, participating in the Wexner Service Corps program, attending Jewish Student Union lunches at school, and becoming a local and regional leader in BBYO. I happily challenged myself and had a spiritually rewarding experience when I became a bar mitzvah. I celebrate the Jewish holidays: I attend High Holiday services, fast on Yom Kippur, build a sukkah at Sukkot, and keep Pesach. And I sought out a Jewish environment for my higher education, choosing to attend Indiana University in part because of the strong Jewish community of students there.
Although I know that there might be temptations that could draw me away from honoring my Jewish practice when I am a freshman in college, I intend to continue to make the same kinds of Jewish choices that I always have. I look forward to continuing to study Hebrew as my foreign language, and, although I am enrolled in the School of Business, I am eager to take advantage of the opportunities made available by the Jewish Studies Department, by attending lectures and group discussions open to the greater student body. I plan to become active in Hillel, attending Shabbat services and celebrating holidays there, and I expect to become involved in an Israel advocacy group on campus, as I traveled there last summer with BBYO and am committed to her future. I hope to pledge a Jewish fraternity during my second semester, ultimately taking a leadership role and participating in program development. And, finally, my hope is to work at a Jewish camp as a counselor the following summer, as I love to mentor and be a role model to people younger than I am, especially when it comes to sharing my enthusiasm for Judaism.
Why am I so determined to continue to make Jewish choices as I enter this next phase of my life? For me, being Jewish is comforting. Judaism is my home away from home. It offers me a doctrine and helps guide me as I make decisions. My relationship with G-d, which has been a critical part of my life since I became a bar mitzvah, simply will not let me veer away from what is most important to me.
My great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents came to this country at tremendous risk and without choice. Their families were being persecuted in Russia and Austria because they were Jewish, and coming to America offered hope and freedom not just for themselves, but also for their children, grandchildren, and beyond. It is due to the determination of my ancestors and the conviction of my own parents that I am here today, a young, proud, Jewish man, the lone male representative of three family lineages. I owe it to my ancestors and to myself to be the best Jew and the best person possible and to give my children this same obligation.
I am Jewish. Next year, I will be Jewish. Twenty, thirty, seventy years from now, I will be Jewish. Being on my own as a freshman in college will not change that. Next year will simply be the first paragraph of a new chapter in my Jewish life.