From a recent brunch in the Sukkah to a live-music dance party this Friday at the Bayit, the campus is buzzing with Jewish life. Working enthusiastically to bring this community together is a group of students collectively known as the Jewish Renaissance Fellows (JRF).
Rabbi David Leipziger Teva started the program 11 years ago after observing outreach initiatives at other universities and identifying a similar need at Wesleyan. The Fellows, including sophomores Stephanie Blumenstock, Jacob Bordoley, Rachel Fox, and Matthew Stein, plan events to enrich Jewish student life on campus and make underclassmen feel welcomed and comfortable.
“The basic challenge I found 11 years ago that holds true year after year is you have first-year students who arrive on campus and it’s overwhelming, it’s confusing, and it’s hard to find your place,” Teva said. “One of the things I learned very quickly is the strength of peer support groups and peer leadership models, which is incredibly strong at Wesleyan and growing stronger.”
Fellows apply and go through training during the spring of their freshman year. The official commitment is one semester, but Fellows have the option to continue working in the spring. The first major requirement of the job is to come back to campus early in the fall semester to plan events for the New Student Orientation. Teva explained that this part of the JRF program is especially instrumental in giving students something familiar amid the chaos and confusion of starting college.
“First impressions are really important,” he said. “Some of them are here for arrival day—they give out Lärabars—they help newly arrived students know that there’s something familiar and welcoming, because for some students everything is new, but Shabbat, challah, Jewish geography, those are things that can help people feel welcome.”
The Fellows plan a variety of programs focusing on different aspects of Jewish culture in order to reach as many students as possible. They organize the freshman Shabbat service and barbecue that takes place the first Friday after first-year students arrive, which Teva said gives students a relaxing and fun activity after three days of all-new experiences. The Fellows also planned an event with s’mores at the Bayit on the first day of classes.
“It’s great to really be at the center of Jewish life on campus,” Stein said.
After orientation, Fellows continue to plan events, design t-shirts each year, and expand previous offerings. Blumenstock said she hoped to create more Chanukah events, which were scarce last year.
Programs like the brunch in the Sukkah will also continue into the semester, as Fox looks forward to organizing more outdoor spiritual events.
“In the future I will be running a Shabbat walk with a picnic and a relaxed service in the woods,” Fox wrote in an email to The Argus. “I like being outside and I like picnics. I think nature is also a fitting and exciting place for religious or spiritual gathering.”
Stein plans to focus his events around instrumental Jewish music and Yiddish culture. He founded a klezmer group on campus last year, and he hopes it will expose students to a wider range of Jewish music.
“I’m planning a Simchat Torah extravaganza this Friday, September 27,” Stein wrote in an email to The Argus. “My klezmer group will be providing some awesome live music, and using funding from my Cowl grant, I’ll be bringing up world-renowned Yiddish dance leader Steve Weintraub to lead dancing for all event participants. Combined with normal Shabbat services and dinner, this is truly a collaborative event that incorporates pretty much all of my programming roles. Hopefully, this will be the first of many klezmer music and dancing events throughout the year.”
In addition, the Jewish Programming Coordinator position was recently added to the program. Rebecca Koppel ’14, who currently fills the role, said that the job was created after a period of relative lack of Jewish programming.
“I went abroad in the fall in my junior year, and when I came back I noticed that there wasn’t as much programming going on,” Koppel said. “I talked to the Rabbi to see what I could do, and that’s how my position of the Jewish Programming Coordinator came about; we decided that there needed to be one point person.”
Koppel works directly with Teva and helps facilitate communication between him, the Fellows, and the Jewish community as a whole.
Teva said he found the JRF program extremely helpful as it allows him to work with students like Koppel and the Fellows, who know what activities might interest their peers.
“They provide me with some really helpful specifics as to what’s the pulse of the community, what the students need,” he said.
For their part, the Fellows said they found the experience valuable because it allowed them to take a leadership role on campus by getting deeply involved in a community that is important to them.
“It’s nice to get to work so closely…with a small group of people,” Blumenstock said. “It’s been really nice meeting the freshmen and engaging them and telling them about Jewish life on campus and answering any questions they have.”
Fellows have the option to apply for a stipend after they complete the program, with the intended purpose of furthering their personal spiritual development through traveling, attending outside events, or embarking on a creative endeavor.
Overall, Teva sees the program as a success on a variety of levels. He is able to give the JRFs the resources they need to step up and create the kind of environment they and their peers want when it comes to Jewish life on campus.
“[I’m a] cheerleader, motivational empowerer,” Teva said. “My role is to say that you’re not first-year students anymore—if you care about Jewish student life, how can you prioritize it? It’s to give them a context and a structure, albeit a loose one, to take on a leadership position in a fluid way that they will personalize, to create Jewish life here. It’s a way to empower them to take ownership, agency, and responsibility to become leaders.”
Additional reporting by Staff Writer Naomi Kosman-Wiener.