Religion and Commitment: Exploring Judaism in College
Every Friday at sundown, Jewish homes are enlightened physically and spiritually as candles are lit to welcome the Shabbat into their home. As the earth spins, region by region joins from New Zealand to the U.S., until Jewish households across the world all unite in religious ceremony until the next sundown.
Santa Monica natives, Rabbi Eli Levantasky, his wife Meril, and his children participate in this ritual regularly, inviting along anyone else who wishes to join them. As a family, they run Santa Monica's local Chabad with a welcoming "open door" policy.
Shabbat is widely popular at Santa Monica College, known for its large amount of international and out-of-state students. For those students who observe Judaism and wish to continue doing so throughout college, the Rabbi's place is a "home away from home."
However, not all students continue to observe Judaism in college.
"Generally, in college it's probably the most difficult time to be a part of their tradition, heritage, so on," said Levantasky.
According to Zohar Cohavy, a student at Santa Monica College, "Once they see they don't have to do that anymore, when they're not required to follow the religion, and all the rules (there's a lot) then they just leave it. But that's not everyone, to be honest."
Cohavy was born of Jewish parents in the Los Angeles County. He attended Jewish schools from kindergarten through high school. And now as a college student, he does not identify with Judaism.
"I kind of stopped thinking religion was such a value I wanted to spend my time with," Cohavy said. "I guess I just kind of saw it as a waste of time. I could be doing something else."
That being said, as the Levantasky family light their candles, Cohavy is at home studying.
Cohavy says one of the biggest issues young people have with Judaism is that it's time consuming and comes with a lot of commandments, also referred to as Mitzvahs, with Shabbat being "the main rule people don't follow."
"It's hard to be jewish," Levantasky said. Many Mitzvahs conflict with general obligations such as work or school. Levantasky explained that during Shabbat, a Jewish person is not supposed to do any work, which includes not using electricity, driving a car and doing homework. This tradition is generally followed by conservative, orthodox, or reform Jews.
The Chabad club at SMC has found a way to combat the difficulties by presenting a more approachable form of Judaism for the hectic schedule of a college student.
"The policy is no pressure," Levantasky said. "Students can join without worrying that someone will push them to do things they don't want to do."
"Thats how it should be, but when I grew up, if you don’t follow the rules, you’d get in a lot of trouble," Cohavy said.
Like Cohavy, Brandon Yashouafar has spent his life surrounded by Jewish people until he started school at SMC. In the midst of all of the cultural variety that comes with public schools, he wants to attend more events to get more involved.
"I feel like it would be good if I get another foundation of Judaism around me, just so I don't stray from my own roots," Yashouafar said.
Most Jewish students grow up with a strong sense of community around them.
Yet during the transitioning period between high school and college, some may have not a loss of tradition, but the loss of community.
"The places I want to go don't have that big of a Jewish community," Yashouafar said. "If it comes to worse, two to three years of straying away... if that's what it has to take to get the kind of education I want, then that's something that I have to sacrifice."
Anna Eyfer, the current president of Chabad Club, describes a "geography game" in which two Jewish people name other Jewish people they know, with the result almost always being that the two know at least a few of the same people.
Her involvement with Judaism has only blossomed over the past couple of years after her high-school friends invited her to a Jewish Youth group called BBYO. "I went to an event and I fell in love with it," Eyfer said. "I just fell in love with Judaism."
Eyfer was raised in a "non-Jewish" household, but wanted to explore Judaism.
"If I were to be raised in a Jewish household. I am not sure how connected I would be. I am a very open minded person, but I like to experience on my own time," Eyfer said.
Eyfer attends Shabbat dinner every Friday and various other events, continuing to learn about Judaism. In a time where religion is hard to commit to, she like many others make the effort.