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My CJS Journey

"My time at the Center for Jewish Studies set the foundation for a lifelong commitment to creating, fostering, and nourishing Jewish communal life." - Tania Lowenthall

by Tania Lowenthal

From the Spring 2016 issue of Currents, View PDF

Twenty years ago, with the muddy clarity of a twenty-something in search of a meaningful direction, I enrolled at the Center for Jewish Studies. I did not know that Professor Naomi Seidman would become an esteemed Director of the Center, charting its academic and spiritual direction. I did not know that Professor Daniel Matt, would go on to become a world-renown Zohar scholar. I did not know what path would emerge for me. But I knew—rightly—that the journey would inform my life’s direction.

Here’s why the CJS, for me, is beshert:

At CJS, I had the opportunity to learn from remarkable, visionary scholars in Jewish history, thought, and mysticism. But the generosity of their spirits, their view of themselves as lifelong learners, allowed us to truly learn together. I was stretched intellectually and spiritually in new ways, and I was able to bring my wisdom, my life experience to the learning of others around me. We were truly a learning community.

The faculty at CJS encouraged me to write my thesis—a curriculum on Jewish Spirituality for Young Adults—because they knew it was what I wanted to do (and they, at least, seemed undaunted by the fact that I had no idea how to do it). Since I’d grown up in Cali, Colombia, many thought I might explore the history of Sephardic Jews in Colombia—and indeed, they have a fascinating story that has shaped contemporary Jewish life around the world. But it didn’t call me. I had questions about Jewish mysticism--specifically, how young people could access its deep learning and traditions. Professor Matt understood what inspired me, and guided me throughout my scholarship, offering feedback that was always insightful, humble, and extremely helpful. Although he is one of the world’s great scholars in Jewish mysticism, he was, to me, a very personal, wise, and accessible advisor. Quintessential CJS.

I’d grown up firm in my Jewish identity, but at CJS, I learned my Jewish identity and beliefs were limited only by my choices, not by the world in which I lived. I also learned to have faith in myself. Professor Naomi Seidman offered me the delicious opportunity to do an independent study with her to enhance my Hebrew learning. The work was remarkably challenging. But those meetings were precious, protected time. Furthermore, in typical CJS fashion, I was encouraged to find a creative way to use my skills as a native Spanish speaker to fund the crucial Aramaic lessons needed to unpack the heavy texts I was devouring. I was encouraged, supported, and challenged to expand my boundaries in ways I could never have imagined.  

Diversity of thought and experience is a starting point at CJS ­– and throughout the GTU. From the moment I stepped onto campus, my presence was received as an opportunity for deeper learning and understanding; I was Jewish, Colombian, gay, and left-handed—all welcome characteristics in our learning community.

More than anything, being a student at the CJS and years later serving in the advisory board has helped align me, professionally and personally. It set the foundation for what would become a lifelong commitment to creating, fostering and nurturing Jewish communal life on my own terms, and in ways that cultivated independent, thriving Jewish life where I live.

Tania Lowenthal is Director of Admissions and Marketing at The Brandeis School of San Francisco.