It was the night of Jan. 2, 2013, and I was depressed beyond belief. Yes, it was my first night ever in the State of Minnesota, yes it was the middle of winter, and yes I had grown up and lived my whole life in the south. But the bitter cold and the state had nothing to do with my depression – chemical dependency did. I had come to Minnesota for substance abuse treatment at Hazelden. After only a single semester at Tulane University in New Orleans, I had burned out in spectacular, destructive fashion.
At that time, I didn’t know anybody in the state, heck I didn’t know anybody in the whole Upper Midwest. I felt so alone and confused. I began asking myself existential questions: Who was I? What did I want to be? At Beth El Synagogue, where the treatment center brought the few Jewish patients for a recovery Passover Seder, the answer came. I was, and forever wanted to be, a proud Jew.
Fast-forward a year to January 2014. I’m back in college. Augsburg College to be exact, a tiny Lutheran school in Minneapolis. The only reason I ended up there was because it had a collegiate recovery program. I certainly didn’t pick it for its Jewish life, because it had none at the time.
See, over the previous year of recovery I had begun to formulate my identity. I had realized that despite being raised in Raleigh, N.C., it wasn’t my home. At that point neither was Minneapolis. Through exploring my roots, I had grasped and concluded that Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel, the ancient birthplace of our people – was my home.
Since my identity had become so deeply grounded in a connection to the Holy Land, and with the encouragement of my one Jewish friend on campus, I founded a Students Supporting Israel Chapter (SSI) at Augsburg. My friend and I were excited to introduce essential elements of Jewish culture to campus by opening a pluralistic and honest dialogue about Israel. We planned to share the country’s culture of diversity, technological ingenuity, and democracy with our classmates.
We organized ourselves and were ready to kick-off our group. Then we hit an unexpected roadblock. In what is normally a cursory proceeding, a majority of Augsburg Student Government members decided not to recognize us as an official student group. Our well-intentioned but misguided peers asked, “How we could support such an unjust cause?” and allowed their personal biases to warp the decision-making process. My treasured Jewish identity had been misunderstood.
I don’t cry easily or often – but the very core of my identity had just been shaken. The night of the Student Government rejection was a difficult, tear-filled evening. As I reflected on my classmates’ comments, which took turns alternately accusing the Jewish State of “apartheid” and “genocide,” I struggled not to fall into despair. I had just begun rebuilding my life and identity. Newly sober I was impressionable and fragile. My newfound coping skills were tenuous at best, and that night it took all my strength to avoid falling back on the one tried and true coping mechanism I knew – drugs and alcohol. I survived that night and awoke the next morning feeling lonely and isolated on campus. I had no family locally to support me. I had no community locally to support me. I felt utterly and entirely alone.
That all changed when I received a call from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. It is not an overstatement to say that call altered the trajectory of my life. This was my first formal connection with an established Twin Cities Jewish communal organization. When Ethan Roberts, director of the Twin Cities Jewish Community Government Affairs Program, met with my group’s board and began guiding us towards productive action to reverse the Student Government decision, I no longer felt alone.
The JCRC and entire Twin Cities Jewish community was instrumental in getting Augsburg to address Student Government’s mistake. Within two weeks, our collective efforts succeeded in convincing Augsburg’s administration to reverse the Student Government decision and immediately recognize Students Supporting Israel as an official group.
But the story doesn’t end there. What began as a difficult trial turned into an inspiring leadership opportunity. I redoubled my efforts to bring Jewish life to campus, via Israel programming and interfaith initiatives. SSI Augsburg hosted the Israeli Consul General to the Midwest and I became the first Jewish student to receive Augsburg’s prestigious Interfaith scholarship. As my work on campus began to bear fruit, I found myself becoming increasingly involved in the larger Twin Cities Jewish community. I was asked to share my story at the JCRC Annual Event and Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Super Sunday Fundraiser. I was twice supported by generous Federation donors to travel to Israel, to study at Tel Aviv University and later to participate in the JCRC’s Inaugural State Legislator Trip.
As I met more and more leaders in the local Jewish community, I began to feel increasingly at home in the Twin Cities. My cold, lonely beginnings in Minnesota could not seem farther away. My urge to drink and use drugs had been replaced with a desire to help and serve my community. Early in sobriety, the temptation to go party on Friday nights was all-consuming. This urge vanished as I increasingly found myself as a happy guest of a local Jewish family at their Shabbat dinner table.
After I graduated in the Spring of 2016, a friend from the Jewish community helped me get a job as a legal assistant with a local law firm. After work hours, I continued my engagement with Jewish communal organizations, joining the Minneapolis Federation’s P2G Steering Committee, and the boards of directors of Minnesota Hillel and Jewish Community Relations Council’s. Serving in these leadership positions was a huge learning experience. I witnessed firsthand the messy world of Jewish communal organizations and saw how demoralized many lay-leaders are with what they see as “dysfunction” and “decline” in their agencies. While their claims are not altogether unfounded, my engagement with local Twin Cities Jewish organizations paints a different picture.
When I moved to Minnesota to attend substance abuse treatment at the age of 18, I was beyond sick and broken. I was suicidal and saw no future for myself. The idea of even graduating from college was beyond my comprehension. Last month my lovely girlfriend and I drove our packed U-Haul from the Twin Cities to Virginia, as I prepare to attend law school there. Over the two-day drive, I reflected on my growth since those first dark days in Minnesota. I am now a mature, motivated, and inspired leader and intend to dedicate my professional life serving our community.
My transformation from brokenness to leadership would not have been possible without the boundless support of the Twin Cities Jewish community. In these times of uncertainty for our Jewish communal organizations, it is easy to question their relevancy and decry them as ineffective relics of a prior era. Undoubtedly our agencies need to perpetually transform to continue serve the needs of our community; but it is imperative that amidst our justified critiques, we remember that these organizations continue to impact and inspire individuals every single day. I know that our Jewish agencies still change lives. I know this because the Twin Cities Jewish community and our organizations forever changed mine.
Julian Yigal Kritz grew up in a proud Jewish household in Raleigh, North Carolina. He hopes that life will allow him and his long-term girlfriend, Megan, to return to the Twin Cities often.