The Search for Meaning on College Campuses

Dr. Gwynn Kessler (GS PhD ’01)

The Davidson School recently invited three professionals who work in the areas of Jewish Studies and Jewish life on college campuses to reflect on how they think emerging adults explore meaning and meaningfulness through Judaism. This is a paper shared by Dr. Gwynn Kessler of Swarthmore College.

Open Hillel, sexual misconduct, divestment—be it from fossil fuel companies or the contemporary state of Israel/Palestine—all join the list that includes, among other things I am sure, questions about race, ethnicity, gender identity, sex and sexuality, the search for purpose, meaning, justice, and profit that emerging adults currently face throughout their time on college campuses across the nation.

In my brief talk I draw from my more recent experiences as a professor and my past experiences as an undergraduate Jewish studies major in order to reflect on the interconnectedness between issues of politics, identities, and religion and spirituality.

I would like to begin by offering some brief vignettes drawn from my experiences at Swarthmore College over the past six years I’ve been teaching there. I will then put them in the broader context of the meaning of meaning for college students as they search out their own identities and make sense of the world and their places in it. In short, to anticipate what I will say in slightly more detail during these remarks, I think that emerging adults in higher education continue to search out meaning in both profound acts and everyday occurrences, both inside college classes where they—at their best—are expected to critically examine both their intellectual and embodied selves, as well as outside the classrooms in their activism that is imbued with Jewish spirit. Now, as ever, college students seek to make meaning of their lives and construct the course of history, Jewish and non-Jewish, with the lives they lead.

I offer an opening frame by citing an overly famous statement attributed to Hillel the Elder that appears in Mishnah Avot 1:14: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

The meanings of this framing, in this context, will become apparent by the end of my remarks, if not sooner.

In the fall of 2013, a handful of students at Swarthmore College declared what was then the campus Hillel an “open Hillel.” I learned about this from a friend of mine in Israel, who texted me, “Kol hakavod Hillel Swarthmore. You advising them?” I then Googled my institution to discover what had transpired. In fact, I was not advising them, I was teaching them. I soon discovered that the two leaders of this move—one, the brains behind it and the other, its public face—and others on the Hillel Board active in the decision and its aftermath were in my Intro to the Hebrew Bible class that semester. Many of those same students often remarked about how what they had been learning in the class surfaced in their drashot and conversations at Shabbat services and dinners. And many of these same students are pre-enrolled for my upcoming class on the Talmud for the fall of 2015. The student I am referring to as the brains behind declaring Swarthmore Hillel an open Hillel went on to spend a semester in Israel and Palestine. When she returned to Swarthmore she continued studying in our beit midrash, taking Hebrew for text study classes. She also did an independent study with me on the Talmud, and she wrote her honors performance piece for the Drama Department on the rabbinic tradition about the four who entered pardes.

One of my first students at Swarthmore in told me in 2009, “You don’t come to Swarthmore to be Jewish.” This student recently texted me a picture of Facebook post from another Swarthmore alum. The post was written by a woman who was sexually assaulted on campus before she graduated a couple of years ago; she was writing on the eve of her alleged rapist’s graduation. My student wanted to pass this information on; he wanted me to know about it; he wanted to do something about it as well as know something was being done about it. Knowing that I had served on the campus’s Sexual Misconduct Task Force the previous year and a half, he wanted me to do something.

During the past semester, students at Swarthmore staged a sit-in—one of the earliest, if not the first, US colleges to do so to convince the boards of their institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Rabbi Arthur Waskow came to the sit-in one afternoon to meet with the students. One of my students, a transgender son of a Reconstructionist rabbi, came to meet Arthur and show his support of the divestment campaign.

Perhaps none of these students decided to spend four years of their early adult lives at Swarthmore College “to be Jewish,” but their Judaism meant something to them, and that meaning, those meanings, developed and flourished there. Their answers to Hillel ha-Zaken’s challenge (“If I am only for myself, what am I?”) are of course quite varied, but they are alive and well in their activism for Palestinian rights, in their support for survivors of sexual abuse, and in their concern about the health of the planet, as well as in their efforts to remake and re-envision gender and sexuality or to stand up against racial injustices. Indeed, I am sure they often ask themselves, “If not now, when?”

I don’t often reflect on my students’ experiences as similar to mine as an undergraduate. How the formation of my Jewishness as an integral part of my identity took shape on a college campus in Jewish studies courses, as I sought to make sense of my own heritage. I, too, arrived on a college campus with an inherited sense of my Jewishness, handed down and fostered by my parents and my upbringing, but what that meant, as well as the details of Jewish history and rabbinic and philosophical text study, were more opaque. When I look back on what led me to the academic study of Judaism I see it as a search for meaning and understanding—my early grappling of and with my Jewish identity.

At the same time, as a college professor, I am uneasy with the notion that my students take courses simply to buttress their Jewish identities for the sake of an amorphous concept of Jewish continuity, anxious at the very thought that I continue the work of Jewish day schools that instill somewhat more simplified notions of Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish identity than I want my students and my children to engage with as emerging adults. (Don’t worry, I say this with one child enrolled in my local Philly Jewish Day School and the expectation that my six month old will one day attend the same school.)

This brings me to the meaning of meaning for my own work—both in research and teaching. What is it that I seek to convey to my students about identity? About history? About the future?

I spend a great deal of time searching out the meaning of things for the Rabbis of late antiquity to address contemporary issues with fetuses or what might now be called genderqueer bodies. I think that often one of the differences between a more seasoned scholar and a younger one is the realization that the access I have to the meaning for another group of people across time and space is at best fraught, fractured, muddled, and messy. It is my responsibility as a scholar to find plausible meanings for ancient contexts, within their own settings. It is also my responsibility to realize the meaning I make is not entirely divorced from the meaning I wish to make. That meaning is always filtered through experience. It is my responsibility to teach that to my students as well. As a college professor, the meaning I try to make for students is also mediated by the meanings they are making and will make of this information for themselves. Meaning and meaning-making are messy endeavors.

One of the things I’m attempting to do here is make meaning of my students’ political activism. To see and set their activism around Israel/Palestine, sexual misconduct, the environment, and other injustices as part of a broader process of searching out identities and meaning for themselves, especially as it is connected to their Jewishness and the meaning of Judaism for them.

In closing, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” is for many emerging Jewish adults of this generation a question that brings about inquiries into the meaning of their privilege. My students are far more aware of their privilege than I was at their age. The meanings of this privilege and what they make of those meanings, will, I have no doubt, set the stage for their own quests for meaningful lives. It will also expand, even stretch and test the meanings of Judaism and Jewishness for the foreseeable future, or maybe more accurately, the future that is unforeseeable. I, for one, am excited for this future, these prospects, and these expansions of Jewish meaning for generations to come. 

Dr. Gwynn Kessler received her PhD in Rabbinics from The Jewish Theological Seminary (GS ’01). She has taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Florida in Gainesville, and she currently teaches in the Department of Religion and serves as the coordinator for the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Swarthmore College. Dr. Kessler is the author of Conceiving Israel: the Fetus in Rabbinic Narratives, published by UPenn Press.