At the American Jewish Historical Society, there was an excellent program about Jewish women in the Civil War. The audience learned about such colorful women as Phoebe Yates Pember who served as a nurse, with 15,000 patients coming under her direct care during the war and Clara Solomon, a teenager who chronicled the Civil War.
I learned that the South may have been racist in its oppression of African slaves, but it was far more welcoming to Jewish people than the North, where they were openly persecuted. In fact, some of the worst atrocities committed against Jews on American soil, including the vile General Orders #11 by Ulysses S. Grant, which expelled “Jews as a class” from the war zone, were perpetrated by the North. This gave a new twist the moral binary I had always associated with the War Between the States.
I learned a lot of really interesting information, so did the other people attending the program – only problem: I was one of the very few people under thirty. This was confirmed by many of the participants and one of the panelists. “We love our senior citizens attending, but what will happen to Jewish academia in the next generation?” one person lamented to me.
It is not just the future of a world without extensive Jewish programming that concerns me but the sense of incredible opportunity going to waste. Visiting Jewish lectures is not just a great way to spend an evening. It’s a great way to make your career and school experience better.
Places like the American Jewish Historical Society, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Metropolitan Museum of Art often have incredible and interesting speakers who shed light on entertaining topics. A quick Google search will tell you if it’s a style you will like. This is a great augmentation for any class, and a great way to find research topics for papers. Had I not attended history lectures with my parents, I would have never discovered my love for British Monarchy and its sordidly entertaining saga.
More importantly, they are crucial networking opportunities. The speakers are often renowned in their fields and are usually accessible before or after the program. If you are a history major, you can network with someone doing research in a field you love. Since many academics are doing research, they may need assistants. That is one golden opportunity for career growth, be it cash, work experience or college credits. Even if they don’t need your help personally, they may have colleagues who do need help. Even if they can’t help you now, that can always change.
More importantly, the audience around you can be an excellent networking source as well. If you are interested in archeology, attending a lecture on the Dead Sea scrolls will likely have you sitting next to people who share your interest and might have information on furthering your career. You are likely to find people who work in the field, and as they are in their element, it is it easier for you to approach them without sounding needy or pushy. There’s nothing like saying “What did you think of the lecture?” as an icebreaker for shy people. At one lecture I attended, I got to meet an incredible author in the same field who gave me a copy of his book on the spot, asking me to compare it to the lecturer’s.
It’s also a great place to meet friends. If more young Jewish people started attending events, it could be a place for people who didn’t go to school together, but share mutual interests to congregate in a safe environment. I met one of my dear friends at a journalism conference and now we meet once a week because we have so much to talk about.
Of course, the most important reason to attend lectures is because it’s important for the Jewish world to have informal education. May of us who study dutifully for the BJEs and for our university exams stop learning once it’s no longer being forced on us in exchange for grades. Learning Jewish studies shouldn’t stop once we’re free to make the choices on our own. Now is the time to stop going by a teacher’s curriculum and learn what you are truly interested in, in greater depth. And if many young people attend, many of the lectures will become more attuned to out interests.