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The Judaism I Envision

The Judaism I Envision

A group selfie of author Evan Traylor and friends from camp and youth group

“And Jacob…left.”

This is how last week’s Torah portion, parashah Vayeitzei, begins. Jacob tricks his father Isaac into receiving the blessing of the firstborn and flees from his rightfully angry brother Esau. We read about the famous dream, during his journey, of angels going up and coming down on a ladder, and Jacob waking up feeling certain that God was there – that it was a holy place. After this realization, Jacob takes the stone he used as a pillow and makes a monument. Jacob adventures, he dreams, and he discovers the holy.

I was in 8th grade when I found myself on the way to the URJ Greene Family Camp, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Bruceville, TX, for a junior youth group event, where I was thrown into a weekend of activities and games with total strangers – and I had the time of my life.

I will always remember awkwardly sitting at a table for Shabbat dinner, unsure who to talk with or what to say. I so desperately wanted to connect with the other kids and feel a part of the community. I continued to sit there until one of the high school leaders came to our table with a huge smile and asked my name; soon, she connected me to the other kids sitting at the table. From that moment on, I stopped worrying about how the others would think about me, and I just jumped into the weekend. I sang my heart out at services, introduced myself to the other guys in my cabin, participated in my program groups, danced during the social on Saturday night, and truly had the time of my life.

I returned home that weekend and told my parents I wanted to go to Jewish summer camp, an idea I had rejected for years. That one weekend was the spark that set me on my path in the Jewish community, which included three summers at camp; a five-week summer experience in Prague, Poland, and Israel; countless youth group events; and several youth group leadership roles. In college, I interned at the University of Kansas Hillel and co-founded the Hillel International Student Cabinet, staffed five summers at the URJ Kutz Camp (a Reform Jewish leadership camp for teens), and now work full-time as the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) presidential fellow for millennial engagement. With support and guidance, I set out on an adventure, I was challenged to dream, and I discovered the holy.

Who would have thought that a weekend event at age 14 would lead to all of these experiences? Like Jacob, I set out on an adventure, I was challenged to dream, and I discovered the holy.

For so many kids and teens in our Reform Jewish community, the opportunity to go to camp and to participate in Jewish youth group gives them that chance to adventure, dream, and discover holiness. It is in these places that kids and teens challenge themselves and their peers to wrestle with their connection to Israel, understand their responsibility to pursue social justice, and create communities of love and support. They are our sages and leaders, and I relish every opportunity to learn from their wisdom.

I just moved from Kansas to New York City, and I’m constantly wrestling with questions: How do I build a community? What’s a meaningful use of my time? What’s my contribution to the world? And, maybe most importantly, how do I live a good life?

Now, in my new role, I’m privileged to watch college students and young professionals as they set out on their new adventures on campus and different cities, all with the hope of creating community and making a meaningful contribution to the world. This is a big transition for many of my peers, and I’m excited to support them on this journey and work with them to find the places where Jewish life can impact their lives. The URJ’s commitment to engaging millennials in Jewish life, like so much of our work around North America, can and will transform lives. We’re excited to work with Reform congregations, Hillel and other groups on campus, and innovative organizations such as OneTable and Moishe House, to create and implement a strategy that will allow Jewish college students and young professionals to connect with Jewish life and with one another. In a time of enormous change, they adventure, dream, and discover the holy.

It’s an honor to be a part of this community as it expands its comfort zone, rather than just stepping outside of it; that's too easy! Instead, we’re truly growing, expanding, dreaming big, and finding the holy – without our synagogue walls, within prayer, within justice, and within one another. 

This is my vision of Judaism: a Judaism that challenges us to be our best selves by embarking on adventures, reimagining our world, and discovering the impact of goodness and power intertwined. If we place ourselves in the narrative of Jacob and Vayeitzei, how will our story look? Let's set out on adventures. Let's dream beyond any belief. And let's find and create the holiness that our world so desperately needs.

Evan Traylor, originally from Oklahoma City, serves as the associate director for college engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism, after spending two years as the inaugural URJ presidential fellow for millennial engagement. Evan graduated from the University of Kansas studying political science, Jewish studies, and leadership studies. He is a past NFTY president, Kansas Hillel intern, student member of the Hillel International Board of Directors, and co-founder of the Hillel International Student Cabinet.

Evan Traylor
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