A Quest for Deeper Understanding and Acceptance

Eliana Light ’13 is finding a path to integrate her diverse personal interests

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Everyone said Eliana Light ’13 should go to Brandeis. Where better for a rabbi’s daughter from Memphis, deeply engaged with her religion and with questions about ethnic identity, than a broadly diverse university with deep Jewish roots?

So, of course, she resisted.

“I was thinking maybe I should go somewhere I’d have to struggle” to maintain religious commitment, study and practice, Light says. Then she thought: “But why? Why not be in a community where I am comfortable.”

When Light came to Brandeis, she knew quickly she had made the right choice. Professors of Jewish studies who were giants in their fields, lively student-run services, Hillel Shabbat dinners “so big, with so many Jews from different places” all added up to a community she loved.

Light had a long-term direction — rabbinical school. But she did not want to do that right after college, and needed a focus for the nearer term.

It didn’t take long for her to find one. Her first semester class Sociology of the American Jewish Community appealed to her because of her interest in the American Jewish experience. She didn’t expect that it would shape the course of her studies and even her life.

“I didn’t know what sociology was before I came here,” Light says. “”I’d always been a pop-culture junkie, fascinated by people and their stories. I was drawn to sociology because it is not just the study of culture, but of how and why culture developed.

“Sociology is giving me the tools to examine my world and to learn about people,” she says. “I don’t know if it is a discipline I will continue, but what I’ve already learned – how to interview, how to take field notes – those are important whether or not I become a sociologist.  They are skills which greatly enhance my experience with the world.”

She has discovered that her varied interests — Judaism, sociology and music — can be thoroughly integrated at Brandeis.

She took Religions in Greater Boston, a course offered jointly by the Departments of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology that explores how religious practices and beliefs unite and divide communities; the course examines Christian, Unitarian-Universalist, Muslim, Native American, Buddhist and Spiritual traditions as well as Judaism.

Light joined Brandeis’ semi-professional Israeli dance troupe B’Yachad, served as gabbai of the traditional egalitarian minyan and currently teaches in the Brandeis Jewish Education Program for young children.

In the summer of 2011, an internship at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute deepened her synthesis of her interests. Interns were asked to research and report on some aspect of Judaism and gender. Light chose to investigate why some committed young Jews embrace egalitarianism while others maintain traditional gender roles. She brought her sociological and musical skills to bear on the question, interviewing peers and rendering the results in poetry, song and dance.

“Brandeis,” she says, “gives you amazing space to study in whatever schools or programs you want.”