When our grandparents went to college in the fifties, American society was still ordered according to class, color, and creed, so it was the norm to room and hang out with members of your own tribe.
A lot has changed in fifty years. Now, diversity/ multiculturalism is the norm on campus, and college students are encouraged to live with roommates of different backgrounds as another way of experiencing the larger world. And considering that some 98% of Americans are non-Jewish, it’s likely you’ll be rooming with someone who may know little or nothing about Jews or Judaism.
What’s a Jew to do? It depends on your roomie. In typical Jewish fashion, let’s look at the worst-case scenarios first.
What if my roommate is an evangelical Christian who believes that only Christians are rewarded with an eternal afterlife, and he must convert you in order to “save your soul from damnation”?
- First, politely explain to your roommate that just as you respect his beliefs, you wish him to respect and not impose his upon you. You may wish to say something honest but friendly like, “Hey Chris, I appreciate your passion for your faith, but God and my family go WAAAAY back, so please let this go. We will probably do better as roommates if we just respectfully agree to disagree about religion.”
- Be patient and persistent. If it happens again, let your roommate know directly but firmly that you are fine with your religious beliefs and that you do not want to discuss religion with him. A third time warrants your saying that this is the last time you will ask him to stop.
- Should the offensive behavior persist beyond three incidents, go to your residence hall director or the director of your college’s residence life office, explain the situation, and ask for a room transfer (almost all college residence hall policies give you room transfer rights).
- In the unlikely event that the university system isn’t responsive, ask the Hillel rabbi, a Jewish faculty member, or a local rabbi for help.
What if my roommate believes such stereotypical notions about Jews as Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus or Israel is the cause of all the problems in the Middle East?
- Keep in mind that while sometimes such erroneous views are purely antisemitic, signifying an intense dislike or hatred toward Jews, usually they reveal an ignorance of Jews and Judaism that may be corrected through honest dialogue. So prepare for a reasoned discussion by anticipating the arguments your roommate is likely to voice and having the facts at hand to prove your points. So, for example, if your roommate blames Israel for all of the Mideast’s problems, go to the Israel on Campus Coalition website; you’ll get the education you need to counter such accusations. If your roommate holds negative views of Jews based on religious beliefs, educate yourself on his religious views and how Judaism responds to them at My Jewish Learning. If you’re still stumped, consult your Hillel rabbi, a Jewish studies professor, or perhaps a member of your school’s pro-Israel group.
- Initiate a frank conversation, honestly sharing your discomfort in an unthreatening way so that your roommate feels obliged, as a matter of civility, to listen to you. You might say, “Listen, we need to talk about this. I think you might have the wrong information about Jews and Israel. If you are willing to really hear me out with respect, then let’s dialogue.” Be patient and persistent. If your roommate has held these erroneous beliefs for a considerable amount of time, he’s not likely to reject them outright—and in fact may not ever change his mind. But if you can shift the emphasis from accusatory to respectful disagreement, you have made a major shift in impacting how he interacts with Jews—and with you.
- If your roommate continues to cross the line, ask the residence life or campus Hillel office to mediate another discussion.
- If all else fails, don’t be stuck in an unpalatable situation—request a room change pronto.
Now that we’ve tackled the worst-case scenarios, remember this: the overwhelming majority of non-Jewish students and roommates you will encounter on campus will be glad to know you regardless of religion or politics. We have far more in common than we realize, and when it comes to differences, learning to appreciate others’ beliefs as unique individuals will in turn reinforce your own identity as a Jew. Remember what Jewish theologian and college professor Dr. Martin Buber said: “Next to being children of God, our greatest privilege is being the brothers of each other.”
—Rabbi Scott Aaron,
author, Jewish U: A Contemporary Guide for the
Jewish College Student (URJ Press)
Know Your Rights
Know your rights when confronted with anti-semitic behavior on campus, and protect yourself and others by reporting anti-semitic incidents. To learn more, call the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at 1-800-552-6843, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the US Commision on Civil Rights website.