Exploring secular identities enhances Jewishness
Guest ColumnistOpinion

Exploring secular identities enhances Jewishness

"Jewish and" campaign unites identities


On the weekend of Feb. 21, the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh held its fifth annual Ignite Summit, a three-day program featuring traditional Shabbat observances mixed with presentations from guest speaker Ariel Tidhar. The Ignite Summit is a signature event for the Hillel JUC, providing its students with an opportunity to deeply discuss a specific Jewish theme, hear from nationally successful Jewish professionals and navigate stress away from upcoming midterm exams.

This year, the summit’s theme was “Jewish and,” exploring the intersections between students’ Jewishness and their other component identities.

As the vice president of Hillel JUC’s University of Pittsburgh student board, I was getting ready for another inspiring summit as February approached. Last year, as a green freshman new to Jewish college life and still grieving Oct. 27, actress Mayim Bialik’s Ignite appearance was cathartic for me. She graciously answered students’ questions about anti-Semitism, Israel and maintaining her Jewish identity while surrounded by the Hollywood stereotype, setting my expectations for what community-led Jewish learning should accomplish and inspiring me to look forward to this year’s summit.

Walking into the Hillel JUC building for Friday night Shabbat, I was met with hundreds of colorful “Jewish and” circles that students had filled out over the past few months. Ariel Walovitch, Hillel JUC’s director of engagement, had been running this “Jewish and” campaign since last year, seeking an initiative for students “to be inspired to show their true colors.” My own bright yellow “Jewish and writer” circle intermingled with others’ declarations of being Jewish sports-lovers, Greek life members, and natives of various cities. To see everyone’s defining attributes displayed, while knowing that we are all part of the larger Jewish community, confirmed for me the diversity within Hillel JUC. Every student brings a unique viewpoint to Jewish culture, enriching our programs and gatherings.

The weekend’s guest speaker, American Israeli jewelry designer Ariel Tidhar, gave a presentation on Saturday highlighting the importance of her coinciding Jewish, feminist, and Israeli identities. Tidhar embarked on her design career in 2016 after graduating from New York’s Pratt Institute with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in fashion design. After facing anti-Semitism from members of the fashion industry and repeatedly getting turned down for jobs, Tidhar embraced the notion that “talent is easy, hard work is always hard” and set out to make her own line of hand-crafted jewelry, incorporating traditional Jewish motifs and modern pieces honoring her Israeli roots. Four years since graduation, she has a thriving brand and works closely with other Jewish women in design.

Hearing Tidhar tell her story of refusing to suppress her identities and ambitions gave me hope that there are creative spaces where people with “Jewish and” in their identities can thrive.

As an aspiring writer, Tidhar’s message of resilience and hard work resonated with me. “If you want to create something, you have to be genuine to yourself because only that will create longevity in success,” Tidhar said. Undertaking any creative pursuit has its risks and its associated fears, but perhaps by embracing one’s true identities and persisting both through a path’s benefits and detriments, one will have a chance at success. Being able to see a young, Jewish woman succeed in such a creative, competitive industry was an important element of Tidhar’s impact at Hillel JUC.

On Saturday morning, I led a discussion about the intersections of religious and secular identities, the significance of one’s name and how to approach situations where one must suppress an identity. Discussing these issues made me realize that while we sometimes face challenges maintaining multiple facets of our identities, there are spaces in which each facet can be nurtured. When they all coexist, we find strength in displaying our unfiltered selves.

Dozens of students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University got the chance to buy some of Tidhar’s pieces at a pop-up shop in the Hillel JUC library. Seeing all of her hand-crafted work, designed for anyone and everyone who considers themselves Jewish, confirmed for me Tidhar’s message that “no matter your background, you can feel unapologetically Jewish.” Filled with people shopping for Magen David kippah clips, pomegranate earrings and hamsa necklaces, the Hillel JUC community that morning was a wonderful mélange of students from all backgrounds celebrating both their shared identities and their unique viewpoints. PJC

Dionna Dash is a sophomore communication and linguistics student at the University of Pittsburgh and vice president of Hillel JUC’s student board.

read more: