" Rochelle Zell wasn’t just going to a part of me for four years but for the rest of my life."
By David Steinberg
My path to a Jewish high school was not the typical one. I grew up in a relatively non-observant household and attended a private, secular school through eighth grade. I still remember the first time I visited Chicagoland Jewish High School (CJHS): the helpful student who helped me put on tefillin (for the first time); the vibe of community I felt in the hallways; the mutual respect I sensed between students and teachers; even the lockers without locks. I was sold.
Prior to entering CJHS, I had little occasion to think deeply about my Judaism. I simply acknowledged my Judaism as a fact, the way that I acknowledged that I have curly hair. I did not think much about God or really at all about Torah; neither felt especially relevant to my daily life. However, I did have a strong connection to Israel, having visited often to see relatives. This feeling of connection led to my burgeoning desire to increase my knowledge about and participation in Jewish life.
Four years later, I am profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to attend a Jewish high school. At CJHS, I found an academic environment that integrated Jewish and secular learning in a way that fostered deep thinking about all the important questions in life. Reading fiction by authors such as Dostoevsky, Camus, Shakespeare, Cormac McCarthy, and Phillip Roth, and essays by Soloveitchik, Jacobs, Heschel, Buber, and Dr. Martin Luther King, presented me with such essential questions as: What does it mean to be human? What is the meaning and purpose of life? And what are our obligations within our own communities and to the greater world community?
Thanks to my exposure to great Jewish thinkers along with great world literature, the Jewish values of tzedakah ( charity, justice), mitzvot (commandments), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) permeate the way that I now think about these questions. I also have discovered that the very acts of questioning, debating, and thinking about such fundamental matters are distinctly Jewish in nature.
My classroom learning culminated in a three-week visit to Israel this past January with my senior class that immersed us in the country, exposing us to the diverse experiences and viewpoints of those who live in the holy land. Among those we met included: an Orthodox American who settled in the West Bank and became convinced that relinquishing land for peace is futile; an Israeli who, after losing his daughter in a terrorist attack, joined the Parent Circle, a joint Israeli-Palestinian support group for parents who have lost children to terror; an Israeli and Palestinian (an ex-Hamas member, no less) working together in support of a one-state solution; and a neighborhood of Jews living just outside the Old City, coexisting uneasily in close proximity to a neighborhood of Arabs.
After hearing from so many different people from so many different backgrounds, religions, and political leanings, I understand all the more how important it is to engage in the conversation about Israel, from a place of knowledge and with a flexible mind, because in that discussion-among everyone who lives in Israel and everyone who cares about Israel-lies the seeds of potential for a peaceful resolution to a seemingly intractable conflict. I also feel more prepared to step up, if the need arises, on my college campus, to correct the egregious and hyperbolic misrepresentations, that are so common today, that equate Israeli defensive actions with terror.
Perhaps most of all, what I have found at CJHS is the spiritual sustenance from the feeling of connecting with others, including during daily Tefillah, communal prayer. If someone had asked me, as an entering freshman, if I planned on going to Hillel at college, I would have laughed. Now, my answer is, “Yes, of course.”
The Judaism that has enriched my spiritual well-being by providing me with connection and community at home will also help me find and feel comfortable in new communities away from home. And I appreciate how the mitzvah to observe Shabbat forces my friends and me to slow down from our crazy-paced lives and disconnect form our phones and screens, facilitating our ability to interact face-to-face in a more intimate, meaningful way. As a young adult knowledgeable about and embracing his Judaism, I feel emboldened and excited to embark on the next chapters of my life. David Steinberg graduated in May from Chicagoland Jewish High School and will be attending the College of Engineering at Northeastern University next year.
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