Cam Landis grew up in Madison, Ohio, a “very quintessential, small-town U.S.A.,” he says. It’s north of Cleveland, on the south shore of Lake Erie. People know each other, show up to the football game on a Friday night. The recession hit the town hard, says Landis; employment hovers at about 60%. Still, the community works to embody the Midwestern spirit, he says “everything you have you work for; your word is your bond; family comes first.”
As of the 2020 Census, there were 18,492 people living in Madison. More than 90% of them were white, mostly of German and Irish ancestry, some Italian like Landis’ maternal grandfather. As an Ashkenazi Jew, his mother’s mother was something of an anomaly in the region, says Landis. “Nothing Jewish about Madison, Ohio, except for a couple of lake homeowners,” he says.
Growing up, Landis went to an all-boys Catholic high school in Erie, Pennsylvania, driving an hour each way. In his senior year, he was the captain of the football team when they won the 2016 state championship for Pennsylvania, “which is funny for an Ohio boy to say,” Landis says. “I still feel like I’ve carried Madison wherever I’ve gone.”
His academic journey brought him to the University of Pennsylvania, where Landis graduated this May. At Penn, he majored in biological anthropology, played on the offensive line for Penn’s football team, walked on to the men’s track and field team as a thrower, and delved into his Jewish roots at Hillel.
“Honestly, what really took me to Hillel was that I heard the food was good,” says Landis. The organization rents out its bottom floor to Penn Dining, which hosts Falk Dining Café, a kosher/halal cafeteria serving everything from chicken wraps to traditional Shabbat fare like gelfite fish and kugel.
“We routinely hear that the food at Hillel is the best food on campus,” says Gabe Greenberg, executive director at Penn Hillel. “I personally eat there all the time.” Many students who come to the dining hall either don’t know it’s kosher or it’s not relevant to them, Greenberg says. It lets Jewish students be themselves without “having to choose between honoring different parts of their identity,” he says.
When Landis would go into Hillel to eat, he says others asked if he was Jewish. He’d answered, “No, but I guess technically, yeah. There was this weird kind of push-pull like, well, I don’t identify as Jewish, but I guess I am,” Landis says.
Traditionally, Jewish descendancy travels through the matriarchal line. If your mother is Jewish; you’re Jewish. If you’re mother’s mother’s mother’s mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish. Landis, a half-Irish, quarter-Italian, and quarter-Jewish kid who grew up in a secular Christian environment, celebrating Christmas and Easter but not once lighting Shabbat candles, says he was conflicted.
But Landis says he always felt welcomed. When he gave his no/yes/kind of answer, students in the Jewish Orthodox community would respond, “’No, you are. Don’t let anyone ever tell you you’re not,’” Landis says. “I just kind of was empowered by that.”
In the spring semester of his sophomore year, just before the onset of the pandemic, Landis suffered a debilitating injury, tearing his rectus abdominus and two adductors in his hip. Suddenly, the excuse that he was too busy training to learn about Judaism was gone, he says.
So, Landis went to back Hillel, this time he says not to eat but to ask if there was anyone there who could guide him as “a Jew who knows nothing about being Jewish.”
For Landis, that person was Gabriel Greenberg, then the rabbi and director of Hillel’s Jewish Renaissance Project. Landis began devoting five, six hours a week to reading, contemplation, and debate. He met with Greenberg, along with rabbis through the Jewish mentorship organization Meor, and started learning about Jewish texts.
Landis connected with the scholarly aspect of Judaism, he says. Then COVID hit, and he was still interested, even over Zoom. “So, I kept kind of chugging along,” he says. The spiritual inquiry, coupled with his surgery recovery, was how Landis stayed grounded during the pandemic, he says. “I just kept pushing.”
As a Jewish educator, it was “exciting and refreshing” to work with Landis, Greenberg says, a student “who grew up with little association but is eager and seeking to learn more.”
Landis is a deep thinker, says Greenberg. “He really engages intellectually and personally and culturally and academically. He went all in, really grappling with, what can this 4,000-year old faith tradition mean to him? How can and should it look in his life? So it was really a pleasure to help support him in that journey.”
Cam Grey, associate professor of classical studies and one of Landis’ early mentors, advised him to cast a wide net. “Don’t pick a destination and make yourself into that ideal candidate for a job or next step in life, but just follow your interests,” he advised, and Landis applied this philosophy not only to his academic career but to his life and spiritual seeking.
This fall, Landis will start an MBA program at North Dakota State University in Fargo, “a very athletically-driven decision,” he says. Because of the pandemic, along with his injury, Landis has two more years of eligibility in NCAA track and field, where he will compete in discus and shot put.
“I see this as the way for me to take this as far as I can and then move on in life,” says Landis. “I feel like I just have more to do more to give.”
He spent his junior year taking classes remotely and training hard, with the goal of competing in the 2021 Israeli national championship for shot put, where Landis ultimately won bronze.
He spent the summer in Israel, working in in the Knesset, Israel’s parliamentary body, living in a yeshiva in Har Nof, a religious community built into the hillside on the western edge of Jerusalem, and going to clubs in Tel Aviv. He wanted to experience it all, observance and orthodoxy along with hedonism and modernity.
“The fact that I was willing to let myself do that was what made the difference,” Landis says. “There’s always tension between these kinds of groups within Israel,” he says. “I felt really, honestly blessed to be able to talk and shake hands and experience both sides and feel welcomed by everybody.”
Landis then had his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall, a holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem traditionally used for prayer, with his Israeli friends and a distant cousin in attendance.
“I have a Jewish soul,” says Landis, referencing the neshamah, described in holy texts as divine breath. He says the neshamah, the soul, is more important than any ritual or observance. It’s part of him and will remain, regardless of the path his life takes. Landis says his commitment to the Jewish faith has become as much a part of his identity as his relentless curiosity and drive.
“I came to Penn probably not willing to even admit to anybody I was Jewish,” Landis says. “Now, it’s hard for me to imagine a life without it.”