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Campus Life 200: The Menorah/Tree Dorm Dilemma

College Life Guide coverIt’s your first Chanukah in college: time to eat latkes till it hurts, spin the dreidel upside down like a pro, and light the menorah in your new Jewish home, right? Wrong.

As a freshman, chances are you’ll be living in a dorm, which will have strict fire-safety rules, no matter how liberal or Jewishly welcoming the university. Also, chances are, if you sign up for random rooming, your roomie won’t be Jewish. He/she might have a different holiday home in mind, too—Christmas lights and a tinsel-strewn tree.

Luckily, there are ways to exhibit Jewish pride in the dorm at those precious but pesky holiday times. Here’s what to do:

“Would you light my candle?” Face facts. Candles and other fire paraphernalia such as incense will most likely be banned from your dorm. Instead of acting like a rebel and trying to light Shabbat or Chanukah lighting candles without getting caught, go to your university’s Hillel, where candles can be lit every Friday night before services. And at Chanukah time, buy and use an electric menorah (about $35).

The Menorah/Tree Challenge If your idea of the winter holiday is Maccabee pride and your roomie’s is Xmas night, it’s time for a friendly sit-down. Try first to compromise, suggesting that your shared room feature both Christmas and Chanukah decorations. If you’re initially uncomfortable about having a Christmas tree in your dorm room, keep in mind that it’s not the same as having one in your home before or after college; in college, your home is a shared home.

If your roommate isn’t open to the menorah/tree compromise, go see the residential adviser in your dorm, whose job it is to help resolve such disputes. If your RA can’t solve the issue, each dorm has a staff person who oversees all the RAs. You can also gain some perspective by talking the matter over with your local rabbi. And keep in mind that your roommate isn’t a monster—it’s a new situation for him/her, too; s/he probably doesn’t know how to handle this either. Be understanding of his/her side, and try to keep the disagreement under control: these holidays come only halfway through the year, so if a fight blows up it can make for a long spring semester.

The Passover Predicament: Passover, too, can be a challenge in the dorm, as University of Florida student Shaina Akrish can tell you. To make sure that none of her Passover food touched a surface or appliance that had been used with bread items, Akrish decided to cover all the countertops in her dorm with aluminum foil and tell her roommate not to share her micro­wave for a week. So her roommate wouldn’t be caught off-guard, Shaina explained the regulations and reasons three weeks in advance. But when the time came, she says, her roommate didn’t grasp why putting a piece of toast on the countertop or in the micro­wave would violate Passover rules. Shaina stayed patient, understanding that she’d lived with these rules all her life, but for her roommate they were completely new.

Eventually Shaina’s roommate agreed to stop using the microwave for a week and keep her bread items away from the foil-covered countertops. Sometimes she would forget, though, and ask Shaina if she wanted to go out to eat, at which point Shaina would calmly remind her that it was still Passover.

Now a junior, Shaina says that one thing she wished she’d done—and now would advise others to do—would be to sit down with her roommate at the beginning of the semester and say something like, “Hey, I’m Jewish. Do you know what that means?” Then, she says, you can explain to your roommate how you personally observe Judaism. Clearing everything up from the start may make it easier to solve any specific issue that might arise along the way.

Also, it’s wise to try to anticipate and be prepared to answer your roommate’s holiday questions, such as, “What does Passover mean?” and “Why are you throwing out perfectly good bagels?” As Jews, it’s our responsibility to be knowledgeable enough about Judaism to explain our traditions and rituals. To bone up ahead of time, ask your Hillel rabbi or check out and And if your roommate stumps you, don’t be embarrassed. Compliment him/her for asking such a good question, say you’ll be back with the answer—and find out! It’s also good to be up to date on the situation in Israel—check out and

The Matter of the Mezuzah: Nothing says “home sweet home” like a mezuzah. This small scroll of the Shema encased in a container that’s placed on your doorpost (two-thirds of the way up on the right side at an angle pointing into the room) can be a quintessential piece of Jewish dorm décor. And you can buy a mezuzah practically anywhere that sells Judaica items; or, if you’re like most college students living on the cheap, take advantage of the occasionally free mezuzot giveaways from Hillel or other Jewish organizations on campus.

But before you put up a mezuzah, talk to your roommate—it’s his/her room, too. You might begin by simply explaining the purpose of a mezuzah: it fulfills the mitzvah set out in the second part of the Shema, the V’ahavta: “And you shall inscribe them [these words] on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” By putting a mezuzah on our doors, we are reminded of God’s mitzvot every time we enter and leave our homes. It’s also common practice to touch the mezuzah as we enter our house and then kiss our hand to show our love for God.

If your roommate understands a mezuzah’s symbolism and importance to you, he/she may say, “sure, hang it up.” If the answer’s “no, I’m uncomfortable with the idea,” try to reach a compromise, like putting the mezuzah on the inside of the doorway, where it will be less noticeable. Rabbi Rick Sherwin of Congregation Beth Am in Longwood, Florida says this compromise is acceptable according to Jewish law, but it should be considered a last resort. Should your roommate refuse to compromise, consult your RA and, if needed, the RA’s supervisor. If neither of them can help, keep in mind that there are other ways to fulfill this mitzvah. For example, you can think of God every time you enter and leave your home regardless of whether there’s a mezuzah on your doorpost. And the mezuzah contains the Shema, which you can say every morning and night, “when you lie down and when you rise up.”

It’s not all so complicated, I promise! One of the greatest things about living in a dorm is the social environment; everyone’s trying to make new friends and usually will try to be accepting of differences. Be sure, too, to seek out other Jews in your hall, on your floor, and in your building. At the minimum, you’ll make your parents happy by finding a walking buddy to Hillel. Even better, you may end up like Ilana Engel at Pratt University in New York City, who was able to celebrate Passover with some Jewish friends she’d met in her dorm, along with thirty non-Jewish friends looking for a new experience.

—Deborah Swerdlow, second-year journalism student at the University of Florida in Gainesville and social action vice president of UF’s KESHER group


Union for Reform Judaism.