By Eden Gordon
The Forward recently published a survey that asked, “What makes a college ideal for the Jewish student? Is it the presence of pro-Israel clubs? Kosher food options? Jewish fraternities and sororities? Something else altogether?”
The question inspired a second glance, and then a more critical investigation. I asked a few of my friends what they feel has been most important to them as Jewish college students. A constant theme in their responses? Pro-Israel clubs, Kosher food options, or fraternities and sororities are not what they cite as defining forces in their religious lives.
I began to think about my own experience. I grew up in a largely Jewish community but for most of my life had put my faith on a back burner. Since coming to college I have become much more spiritual than I was before, finding new solace in the idea of God, but I still have not joined up with many Jewish student groups. I began to wonder—do I count as Jewish without being part of a community? And where do I belong amidst debates about Jewish identity?
I am sure I am not alone in my position on what feels like the fringes of the Jewish community. The only conclusion I can come to is that being the college experience is a complex experience for a Jewish student, one that refuses to yield easy answers. But this space of ambiguity can be a productive one, undoing stereotypes and producing questions that I believe can sometimes be more fruitful than answers.
IT’S MESSIER THAN YOU THINK
Surveys like the Forward’s presume that the mere presence of Jewish organizations can provide a stable environment for Jewish students, but fail to recognize the diversity and complexity of the community itself. Jewish organizations are already well established in many schools, but they often do not come across as welcoming all Jewish students, especially those questioning their religious identities.
Social alienation in the face of a perceived exclusivity seems to be a common experience, especially at established Hillels and other organizations already set in their ways. Anya Konstantinovsky, a rising sophomore at Barnard College, said that at Columbia, “There don’t seem to be any discussions, any forums, or any anything for people looking to just learn or to talk about their Jewish identity.” She said, “As someone who has struggled with accepting and now being proud of my Jewish identity, I feel like I have no place in the overall Jewish discussion,” and added that “the [Forward] survey…excludes the notion of Jews who are exploring or beginning to explore their Jewish identity.”
Others echoed her sentiments, citing spaces that fostered their philosophical development in Judaism as the most vital (when they existed) or critically lacking (when they did not) components of their college religious experience. College is a time of figuring out where you fall in the midst of a variety of different viewpoints, and although organizations can provide important support systems, the chance to explore and interrogate faith and its implications is an aspect of religious life often absent on campus.
Many students, even those who feel set in their faith, have trouble finding a place amidst Jewish communities on campus. Deena Zucker, also at Barnard, said that “As someone coming from a small hometown with very few Jews but a very close Jewish community, I was very excited about being surrounded by so many Jewish people.” What she found, though, was that she often felt out of place at the large Shabbat dinners at Hillel. “Cliques of students had already formed, mostly the students who were more religious than I was, and no one would talk to me,” she said, noting that in the following weeks people were friendlier to her, though sometimes their efforts felt more like marketing. “Something that I perceived was a disconnect between sects of Judaism; being Conservative, I sometimes felt out of place in Orthodox or Reform circles,” she said.