Creating A Space For Observant Jews On Campus
Written by Elana Rebitzer
It’s no secret that Columbia has a significant Jewish community, but many students outside of that community are unaware of the customs associated with it. Daily Editor Elana Rebitzer describes how Jewish holidays can create conflicts for the students who observe them, and the tension this creates between the Jewish community and aspects of life at Columbia.
Walk past the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life on a Friday night or Saturday morning, and you will see hundreds of Jewish students gathered together to pray and observe Shabbat, the seventh day of the week and a day of rest in observant Judaism. Many of those students identify as shomer Shabbos, meaning that they observe a certain set of laws and customs from sundown on Friday night to late on Saturday evening.
“On a physical level, it means that I don’t use electricity and I can’t write,” says Barnard first-year Noa Rubin. “So, if I need to do homework, I won’t use my computer but I might print out readings in advance or read books. It means that I have specified times that I have to pray.”
Instead of doing homework or browsing the internet, most shomer Shabbos Jews spend the day praying in synagogue, spending time with other observant friends, and reading books or catching up on much-needed sleep. Often, given the hustle and bustle of New York City, having a day free from distractions or academic obligations can be a freeing or healing time.
“I think that having a day that’s separate from the rest of my week brings me closer to my friends and makes me feel centered,” Rubin says.
Although there is a large community of Jewish students on campus, it can be hard nevertheless to balance the social and academic obligations of attending Columbia with these religious observances. Especially during the fall semester, during which there is a large concentration of holidays which are observed in the same way that Shabbat is, Jewish students on campus often end up missing significant amounts of classes and club meetings due to the holidays.
Students who want to be involved with non-Jewish student groups on campus are often forced to make the difficult choice between breaking their observance and missing an event for their club or sorority.
“It’s been occasionally difficult in terms of catching up on homework and in terms of participation with different student groups,” Rubin says. “And a lot of clubs have had meetings over the holidays. I was really hoping to be involved with Columbia students for Hillary, but when they campaigned it was on Shabbat and when they did calls it was on Shabbat, and that made it really hard for me.”
Because of these reasons, Rubin is not involved in many non-Jewish groups on campus. Many other religious students have similar experiences.
“I think I would be more inclined to participate in student life around campus if I felt it was more inclusive of my religious observance,” Rubin says.
For Noam Green, a Barnard first-year who is involved with activist groups on campus, there have been times where she was forced to make a choice between going to events within her groups or observing the holidays.
“There was an event that I felt like I needed to go to that also conflicted with a major Jewish holiday,” Green says. “I ultimately decided that night, instead of going to shul [synagogue], to go that event. I was definitely really frustrated that I had to make that choice, but I ultimately don’t regret going to that event because it was a really meaningful experience for me.”
Although Green herself does not identify as shomer Shabbos, she has had experiences organizing events around the needs of a Shabbat-observant population.
“Before coming to campus, my activism was almost exclusively in Jewish spaces, and when I’ve been in those spaces, that [Shabbat] was on our minds,” Green says. She explains that “The Jewish activist spaces I’ve been a part of have been good at that.”
Rubin and Green both acknowledge that, since the majority of Columbia students do not observe Shabbat or the Jewish holidays, it can be hard for clubs to accommodate the needs of a smaller group of students.
“I wouldn’t ask an organization to move their event. That being said, I know there are a lot of people who would love to get involved with different types of events on campus, but can’t because they do meet on Shabbos,” Green says.
Despite the challenges that can come with observing a lifestyle that other college students do not, Rubin remains hopeful that she and others with similar observances will be able to remain observant and involved on campus.
“We have a lifestyle and set of rules, and sometimes it’s hard for other people to understand,” Rubin says. “I hope to have more of that [connection with non-Jewish organizations] in the future, and I think part of that could come from being able to be involved with non-Jewish groups on campus.”
As clubs and student groups begin scheduling for the coming semester, they face a multitude of scheduling conflicts and decisions to make. While balancing finding spaces and times that work for students is hard enough already, if these groups try to schedule in ways that accommodate observant Jewish rituals, they’ll find themselves with an increased, active Jewish membership.
Kraft Center via WikiCU
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