Sarah Forman: Rite of passage

Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

I didn’t come to Brown to study or practice religion. While I had grown up in a Jewish home and complained my way through 12 years of Hebrew school, my parents placed more value on secular aspects of family life than on strict religious tradition. We went to Rosh Hashanah services every year, but we would leave early to go apple picking. My two sisters and I read Torah on our Bat Mitzvahs, but we didn’t speak Hebrew.

When I applied to college, I expected to stick with my family’s more cultural and modernized version of Judaism. Instead of religion, I sought an environment where I could grow, challenge myself and find mentors and peers who could push me forward. Little did I know, though, I would find the atmosphere I sought at Brown/RISD Hillel.

I started getting involved at Hillel early in my first year, after I accompanied a friend to a Shabbat service that was more meaningful than anything I had experienced before. I was hooked, and I was also very curious about the community I had stumbled upon. Despite Brown’s pesky reputation for being some bastion of liberal godlessness, there are a number of students here who make religion a part of their daily lives without compromising their larger college experience, something I never expected to find. In the past, I had often thought of traditional religion and independent thinking as mutually exclusive; it was invigorating to see that at Brown, people could do it all.

Hillel soon became one of my rocks and social centers in college. That’s where I sought support and stability when a peer was killed in a car accident, when I had to watch a friend work through a taxing student disciplinary process and where most of my identity-defining moments happened. It’s also where many of my friends spent their time, and where I could always find a free cup of tea and quiet place to study. It was a safe space, and it made me feel protected and grounded enough that I could more comfortably branch out in my other — decidedly non-religious — activities across campus.

Over time, my roles at Hillel became more formal than just showing up for Shabbat. I led services fairly regularly, took a spot on the student executive board and helped expand the type of discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict happening within our community. Though most aspects of my personal practice never changed too much — I have yet to walk inside the kosher food room in the Ratty — I spent a lot of time learning about rules and traditions that other Jews choose to make a part of their lives. Partly for that reason, I decided to formalize my commitment to Judaism through a conversion ceremony my sophomore year. Because my mother was not Jewish when I was born, my status was questionable for some Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. To be clear, no one at Hillel ever doubted my place in the community or made me feel anything less than welcome before my conversion; they just gave me tools and knowledge that helped me want to cement my position within a larger Jewish community beyond the Van Wickle Gates.

I don’t know exactly what role faith will play in the rest of my life, but I’m grateful that my religious literacy and understanding increased at Brown. I feel like I now have an extra tool I can use to explore the world, form supportive communities and hopefully live with as much usefulness as I can muster.

Sarah Forman will be studying Nuclear Energy at Cambridge University next year, and she’s looking forward to singing Kabbalat Shabbat tunes with a British accent.