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Campus Life 203: Few Jews, Many Options

College Life Guide coverCory Feferman wasn’t thinking about Jewish life when he enrolled at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, a ninety-minute drive from Toronto. “I didn’t want to live at home in Toronto or be so far that I couldn’t come home on weekends,” he says. And Trent is a beautiful campus on a river with forests all around.”

Cory had attended a public school “that had lots of Jews” and religious school at Temple Sinai in Toronto; he later became an assistant Sunday School teacher there. Still, he never thought to check out the Jewish student community at Trent in advance of enrolling. “It’s like you go on vacation,” he says, “and spend all of the time packing and forget something totally simple like your shoes.”

It isn’t easy, Cory discovered, “when there isn’t a real Jewish presence on campus.” Attendance at the Jewish Student Association’s periodic bagel lunches and Shabbat dinners numbered fewer than ten students out of a campus of 7,000. “Assimilation is easy to do,” Cory observes. “You adopt the lifestyle of the non-Jews around you and don’t realize it.”

His assimilation slide ended during senior year when he made his first trip to Israel to learn about Jewish campus activism. There, Cory realized, “I had the responsibility, with my newfound knowledge, to become a Jewish leader.” Supported by a Trent student political association, Cory invited Israeli photo journalist Noam Bedein to show videos and photographs about “the rocket reality” of living in Sderot under the constant threat of missile attacks from Gaza. The event attracted pro- and anti-Israel students alike, prompting some fierce exchanges. That was exactly the point, Cory says. “It’s not great to have a speaker who preaches to the choir. Through dialogue and debate, you can inform someone who isn’t already educated on the subject—show him another point of view.”

In conversation after conversation, students on campuses with small Jewish populations echo Cory’s concerns—and efforts. Realizing that “students come to college and lose touch with Judaism when they have no exposure to it,” Ellis Raskin, a junior at Occidental College in Los Angeles, created a residence-hall program to educate first-year Jewish students about their history and heritage. While at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, P.J. Schwartz (who is currently a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) helped establish a Jewish dialogue with both the Campus Crusade for Christ, an interdenominational Christian organization, and the Pagans of the College of Charleston, students who practice folk religions. He also wrote a Friday night service that has become the foundation for the college’s Shabbat services; arranged for the first-ever Rosh Hashanah meals and Passover seders at the college; and invited local rabbis to campus for periodic Parshat Ha’Shavuah talks. And at Butler University in Indianapolis, where Jews constitute only three percent of the student body, senior Bobbi Klein launched Peace Week, an annual campus-wide educational event to promote peace featuring Jewish films, fact sheets, and speakers. “I am proud to see acceptance of the Jewish community at Butler,” observes Bobbi, “where numerous students don’t even know what being Jewish is.”

Leaving behind her active involvement in the youth group of Temple Har Shalom in Warren, New Jersey, freshman Jamie Oksenhorn is already secretary of the newly organized Hillel at Monmouth University in Long Branch, New Jersey. She and the other Hillel students proudly wear sweatshirts inscribed with “Monmouth” in Hebrew letters on the front and “Monmouth Hillel” on the back. She’s putting into action P.J.’s advice for college students everywhere: “Don’t forget your Jewish identity. And if you’re on a campus that doesn’t offer something you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to try to advocate it and make it happen.”

—Betsy F. Woolf, college admissions consultant, Woolf College Consulting, Mamaroneck, New York; journalist; and board member, Hillels of Westchester


Union for Reform Judaism.