Interview by Hani Lowenstein, Associate Director of Community Projects, OU-JLIC:
Adin Feder, a rising sophomore at Yale University, is an active member in the community at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale and has a weekly chevruta with OU-JLIC educator, Rav Alex Ozar. Adin was born and raised in Sharon, MA and attended high school at Gann Academy in Boston. Before his studies at Yale, he spent two years at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. Adin has a wide range of academic interests and was awarded the Richard U. Light Fellowship by Yale to travel to China over the summer and study Chinese. He spent this past summer in Beijing studying Mandarin at the Harvard Beijing Academy.
HL: What do you feel is unique about the observant community at Yale University?
AF: Students who are looking at Yale are usually also looking at academically similar schools. I think that what makes Yale’s observant community unique is its size and pluralism. Certain schools have communities which are quite large. Others can barely get a minyan together for shabbos. I think that schools with larger communities tend to be much more stratified and culturally monolithic. Almost everyone who’s observant has done a gap year and had a similar education, and there’s enough people from that typical Modern Orthodox background that your friends will probably all be from that community. What makes Yale’s observant community so great is that we have the size to support all the great aspects of the very big communities without the insularity and division between Orthodox and non-Orthodox that often follows. We have minyanim three times a day, plentiful learning opportunities, a kosher dining hall, great facilities, and undoubtedly the best OU-JLIC couple ever. But we don’t have enough people to allow for the development of Orthodox or reform sub-communities. Nobody is only friends with people from their minyan, and all Jewish learning events are attended by people from all communities. It is really special that the friends we have in the Jewish community are never limited to only people from a similar Jewish background. Similarly, most people in the Jewish community also have social lives outside of it and have non-Jewish friends. You will see Jews of all backgrounds as well as non-Jews eating and laughing together in our kosher dining hall. Our Friday night onegs are also open to all undergraduates and are attended by the full range of Jewish students on campus.
The other thing which is great is the increasing optimism which has manifested itself in the community. There are excellent new rabbis, staff, a planned renovation and increasing student involvement in all aspects of Slifka. We also have a great concentration of students who are passionately involved in things like activism and music outside of Slifka, and they do a great job of bringing that passion into the Jewish community and constantly make it an even better place.
HL: For many Modern Orthodox teenagers college is often the first time they interact with such a wide range of people and ideas. These experiences can be disorienting for some and invigorating for others. What has been your experience?
AF: I grew up in a very open-minded Modern Orthodox community (shout out to Sharon, MA!), and attended Gann Academy, Boston’s pluralistic Jewish high school (go Heifers!). I thought that this background would help me to smoothly integrate into the diverse environment of college. However, many of my high school friends and I have realized that it is very comfortable to interact with other Jews and to rely on the Jewish community for your social life. I think it is wonderful to have a thriving Jewish social life, and that it is also great to venture into meeting other people and ideas. This doesn’t mean leaving your religious life behind, but rather actively bringing it along for the ride.
I was excited to experience a non-Jewish institution for the first time in my life, because it meant the opportunity to more seriously engage with certain academic subjects as well make friends who are very different from me. I think sometimes Modern Orthodox students might come in to college with a relatively rigid mindset. Even if they are excited by the prospect of expanding their social and academic horizons, they feel a lot of tension and confusion because they think about their religious life as being separate from their participation in secular college life. But there is really no reason, for instance, why reading great poetry can’t deepen your appreciation for the beautiful literary moments of the Torah. I have found that when I am thoughtful about the relationships between my religiosity and my experiences at secular college, both of these parts of my life are enhanced.
College is such an important opportunity to meet very different people. My non-Jewish peers are sometimes even intrigued that I enjoy hanging out with them and also wear a kippah. While it can be a bit annoying to always get asked about Israel, people over time can more deeply understand your observance. Being outwardly religious is a great opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue and interesting conversations.
HL: You spent two years immersed in Torah learning in Yeshivat Maale Gilboa, an Israeli Yeshiva in Northern Israel. How was your transition from that environment to Yale University both from a religious and cultural standpoint? Is there anything that helped to ease that transition?
AF: The transition from Yeshiva to college was something that excited and terrified me. After two years in an intensively Jewish, all-male space, I was very much looking forward to the diversity of people and studies of secular college. On the other hand, I was anxious about how I would get along with my non-Jewish peers while maintaining a sense of integrity and continuity with the new ideas and deeper religiosity I had cultivated in yeshiva.
After getting to college, there were definitely elements of the transition which were hard. When you are in a place like a yeshiva, you are participating in Jewish life along with the rest of the people around you, and there is a definite sense that the rhythms of Jewish life are elegantly interwoven with the fabric of daily life. In college, especially since I wanted to forge relationships with non-Jews as well as Jews, it was challenging to feel the creeping discomfort of duality. My life beyond and within the Jewish community sometimes felt discontiguous. I think one of the things that eased that discomfort as my first year went on was simply inviting friends from outside the Jewish community to join Slifka’s Friday night dinners. I also came to recognize that it was okay to have certain parts of myself not be immediately understood by those around me.
Another challenge of the transition was learning. I think that at high-quality yeshivot, the learning is so amazing because you and your peers are deeply and personally invested in the texts you are learning. There is a clear curriculum and focus in terms of what everyone is studying, and I found those classes exciting and meaningful. In college, there is a much higher concentration of people who are there for a degree, for a good time, etc. While the diversity of backgrounds in college classes is great, it means that not everyone in a classroom necessarily has a deep personal connection to or interest in the material. Therefore, classes sometimes lack the urgency and excitement that you’ll find in a yeshiva class, where any discussion can touch on matters of great religious and personal importance. Looking for classes that might draw more passionate students while recognizing that I could simultaneously seek out extracurricular Jewish learning opportunities helped ease my academic transition.
HL: Yale is located in the heart of the city of New Haven. Have you been involved in any programming with the local community and, if so, what did you learn from these experiences?
AF: This past year I volunteered with the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, helping people in New Haven fill out their taxes and get money back from the government. It is a great way to help people save money! But one of the things that becomes clear from this sort of volunteer work is that helping people save money on taxes is only a small part of much more deeply entrenched problems in our society. In addition to volunteering in ways that make small positive impacts on others’ lives, it is important to think about the big picture of society. There are lots of Jewish students involved in activism, and I hope to follow in their footsteps and continue to participate more actively in various student-led movements.
HL: You spent the Summer in Beijing in an intensive Mandarin immersion program. Can you tell us about the program and what sparked your interest in studying Chinese?
AF: I lived in Beijing this summer and attended the Harvard Beijing Academy, which is an intensive Mandarin program. In fact, it is so intense that we were only supposed to speak Mandarin with our classmates for the entire summer! I got interested in Chinese because it has some fascinating characteristics. It is a tonal language, meaning that any given sound can have four different tonal pronunciations, and each one corresponds with an entirely different meaning. You have to be careful not to mispronounce “mother” as “horse” due to a small tonal error! It is also a character-based language, meaning there are no letters and every word has its own character, which simply must be memorized.
Although my interest in Chinese began as an interest in the language, having spent the summer in China, I have come to recognize that it is also a wonderful gift to be able to speak with Chinese people. China is a fascinating country with unique problems, a quickly-changing culture, global ambitions, deeply problematic political practices and incredibly hospitable people. I think that everyone today should learn at least a little bit about China and Chinese culture. China is also home to a lot of fascinating Jewish history and current ex-pat Jewish communities in multiple Chinese cities.