Back To School

Freshman Orientation: A Primer for Jewish Life on Campus

By Beverly Gray, Education Editor

As Labor Day fast approaches, colleges around the country are welcoming the class of 2002. Some of the wide-eyed freshmen now struggling with books, bedding, and brand-new computer hookups are the products of a Jewish day-school education. For them, life on a diverse, secular campus promises to be a huge change from the more sheltered environment they have known. But for nine local day-school graduates who’ve completed their first year of college, Judaism continues to hold an important place in their lives.

Firmer Than Ever in Beliefs

Rebecca Fenigstein, a YULA graduate, chose the University of Pennsylvania because its well-established Hillel gave her a place for daily kosher meals, as well as a built-in social life. In the dorm, “I consider myself something of a role model as an Orthodox Jew.”

Through his Jewish a cappella group at Columbia University, Dael Geft enjoyed meeting students who think differently than he does. But the pluralistic nature of Jewish life at Columbia has made the YULA grad firmer than ever in his own beliefs.

Some Adjustments Required

Despite Columbia’s large Jewish population, Geft’s classmate Hindi Stohl discovered that campus life required some adjustments. At first, said Stohl, “I thought tons of Jews meant tons of Jews like me.” To her surprise, she was considered right-wing, even among Columbia’s observant Jews. In debates on matters of women’s religious practice, “there were definitely a few cases where I felt ostracized.”

Stohl was happy with her classes and extracurricular activities. She joined an intramural women’s volleyball team, whose Orthodox members felt comfortable playing in skirts. Her residence hall, however, proved a mixed bag; she was bothered by the lack of privacy and is still upset that, last fall, her floor adviser spoke frankly about safe sex and then pinned a condom to the bulletin board. But she’s glad to have made friends with women from diverse backgrounds. One suite-mate, an African American, turned out to be “the most phenomenal person. I absolutely loved her.” Unlike some devoutly Orthodox students who cling to a home-like environment by renting a room from an observant family, Stohl concedes the value of dorm life. She’ll try it again this year.

Many Choices

Ariel Leichter-Maroko found many choices awaiting him at Stanford. The Shalhevet graduate has learned that it’s important “to do what you believe in, not what you’re pushed to do by peer pressure or rabbi pressure.” On Saturdays, he was comfortable walking from shul to an on-campus football game, so long as he didn’t need to handle money.

Though observant Jews are rare at Stanford, Hanna Abrams’ professors and fellow students were all sympathetic to her special needs. But late one Friday afternoon, as she strained to finish a paper due that evening, a roommate asked why she couldn’t simply fudge the rules of Shabbat and work a bit longer. Abrams, a Shalhevet classmate of Leichter-Maroko’s, then discovered that she couldn’t change her practices even if no one was watching. She says, “It’s been nice to be able to step back and realize I’m doing this for me.”

“The Marginalization of Jewish Life”

Shalhevet’s Zev Wexler, fresh from a year at an Israeli yeshiva, found what he calls “the marginalization of Jewish life” at Princeton. The result: He gave up his kippah (except on Shabbat) and briefly experimented with wearing an earring. At Princeton, Wexler says, “if you want to do your Jewish thing, you’ve really got to put effort into it.” He was personally kept on track by two new best friends. One, a roommate from a half-Jewish family, played devil’s advocate all year, but ultimately expressed his respect for the beauty of Jewish tradition. The second, the pious son of a Methodist minister, bawled Wexler out when he slept through Saturday-morning services. And Wexler’s favorite off-campus activity turned out to be tutoring local children in basic Judaism.

Elana Taylor opted for UCLA, in part, because of its Jewish possibilities. Taylor, a Milken Community High School graduate and a Conservative Jew who keeps kosher, ate vegetarian food in her dorm and was actively involved in Hillel. At UC San Diego, Milken classmate Michelle Walker resisted being tied solely to Jewish friends and Jewish activities. She found, though, that “now that I don’t have to have prayers every Thursday, I seek it out on my own.”

When Heather Miller, another Milken grad, picked Wellesley, a strong Jewish community was the furthest thing from her mind. Still, she signed up for Hebrew, attended Torah study sessions, and made a discovery: “I didn’t think Judaism was such a big part of my identity. But it is.”