When Secular Meets Sacred
Susan Landau is a participant in the Religious Action Center's Machon Kaplan summer program for college students. She is a student at Brandeis University and an intern at Generations United.
One of my colleagues at my internship excitedly informed me recently, "You know, there's this great Kosher deli my friends and I like to go to sometimes. I mean, it's really good. And it actually is Kosher! I will get you some more information about it in case you ever have a craving for a knish." Another sent me an email with a link in it to success stories from the Red Cross's endeavors to reunite families that were separated during WW II because, "it's not directly related to our work, but it might be of interest to you, considering your plans to study in Israel." And I can't tell you how many times coworkers have exclaimed, "And I heard you want to be a rabbi! Tell me about that..."
When I decided to apply for the Machon Kaplan program this summer, I was excited to be part of a Jewish community. One interesting aspect of Machon Kaplan, however is that it places interns in both Jewish and secular organizations. I am interning at a non-profit called Generations United that does advocacy for nationwide intergenerational programming. GU is not Jewish, and while getting to know my coworkers, it quickly became apparent to all of us just how strongly I identify with my Judaism! In speaking about my previous experiences, extracurricular endeavors, choice of summer program, and chosen career path, Judaism has been an ever-present theme in my explanations about myself.
That said, I am happy to have the experience of working in a non-Jewish place. Despite its secular identity, in many ways GU operates in accordance with Jewish values. Respecting elders has been a Jewish practice since biblical times, as has the importance of family and community, teaching and learning together. The Reform Movement's emphasis on the compatibility of secular living and Jewish values, and its strong stand on social action is especially relevant here.
While at first it felt a bit unnerving at to be the only Jewish intern, I have come to appreciate how working at GU has enhanced my Jewish identity. And, as you can see, my coworkers seem to enjoy it as well.