Approximately one fifth of University undergrads identify as Jewish. To compare, just 3.3 percent of Connecticut residents and 1.8 percent of U.S. citizens do the same. As a result, the Wesleyan Jewish community (WJC) works hard to accommodate the needs of this substantial and diverse population. By integrating new programs and carrying on with tradition, the WJC provides spiritual and social support to the University’s many Jewish students as well as their interested classmates.
A group of students known as the Jewish Renaissance Fellows (JRFs) orchestrate the activities of the WJC, seeing to it that Shabbat services are led, meals are cooked, and a number of other programs take place.
Rachel Alpert ’18, one of the JRFs for the 2016-17 academic year, explained her role in addition to delineating many of the larger goals the WJC has.
“I’m one of the cooking coordinators, so most of what I do from day to day is making sure there’s people to cook Shabbat dinner every week,” Alpert said. “A lot of what we’ve been up to is trying to reach a greater portion of the Jews and non-Jews on campus. I think that part of the difficulty of being a Jewish community on a college campus is that everyone is looking for something really different, and I think we’re trying to meet as many people’s needs as possible, and I think we’re doing a really good job of keeping a cohesive community but also having different events to draw people in.”
Some new events implemented this year include bagel breakfasts accompanied by text study, known as Bagel Brunch and Learn; a Simchat Torah party called “Turn up for Torah,” celebrating the end and beginning of the cycle of Torah readings; and minyanim Shabbat; among others.
Additionally, on Super Bowl Sunday, the University held its own tefillin-wrapping event as part of the World Wide Wrap, a day dedicated to teaching Jews how to affix a traditional prayer ornament. Talia Kaplan ’18, another JRF, and Julia DeVarti ’17 organized the event.
“Tefillin, or phylacteries, are a set of small, black boxes that contain a piece of parchment with sections of the Torah,” Kaplan wrote in an email to The Argus. “Bound by leather straps, these boxes are placed on the forehead and the upper arm. Tefillin are worn during weekday morning prayer services.”
Though traditionally men have been the ones to wrap tefillin, there are now denominations of Judaism that do not consider the practice gender-based. Kaplan and DeVarti’s event was open to those of any gender identity.
“For World Wide Wrap at Wesleyan, we taught interested students of all gender identities how to wrap tefillin,” Kaplan wrote. “We even had fruit by the foot for people who wanted to try it out but might not be comfortable wearing the ritual objects themselves. We also gave people a chance to pray the morning service wearing tefillin, and our community had brunch together after. Our intent was to create a comfortable space in which people could experience this embodied mitzvah that connects a physical practice to prayer and spirituality.”
DeVarti and Kaplan have also been working on a zine centered on gender and Judaism, which is set for release this week.
Additionally, the WJC’s first-ever minyanim Shabbat took place just last week, where two services were held concurrently. One service was led in the Reform tradition with a “camp theme”—the service’s leaders brought in songs and melodies that they sang during services at their summer camps—and the other was a more traditional service. At the end of the service, all participants came together for the final prayers and a meal. The services saw a higher-than-average turnout, perhaps due to attractive advertising or the appeal of two services. This is an area that the WJC is still navigating.
“I think that’s something the community’s been struggling with for awhile, because there are so many [people from different backgrounds],” Joy Feinberg ’19 said. “So I think that’s why we had the minyanim Shabbos, and I think it was a huge success because it addressed the needs of a lot more people. There are some people in the community who can only have a service when everyone’s together, so I think right now we’re trying to figure out a balance.”
Feinberg comes from a more religious background than many University students, but is finding a balance of the campus WJC—primarily headquartered at the Bayit—and local Chabad, a branch of an organization based in Hasidism that sends emissary families to Jewish communities around the world. Feinberg serves as a student board member for Chabad and is also actively involved in WJC events.
In addition to religious activities, Chabad and the WJC offer events to learn more about Jewish culture and participate in an activity such as challah baking, an event that occurred last week. For the upcoming holiday of Purim, Feinberg and others are organizing an event to bake hamantaschen, triangular pastries filled with jam or chocolate, unique to the holiday. For those who are perhaps newer to organized Jewish life, Feinberg and JRF Lila Levinson ’18 find that these food and holiday-centered events are among the many ways to get their feet wet in Jewish life at the University. Along with Alpert, Levinson coordinates the preparation of Shabbat meals, which are offered, free of charge, following Friday night services, and are always vegetarian with vegan options.
For those interested in learning more about Jewish life, campus resources include the Chabad house, Rabbi David Leipziger Teva (who is currently on vacation in Brazil, but will be back soon), the Bayit, and the JRFs.
“Different people lead services every week, and usually they’re very opening and encouraging of people who haven’t had a lot of experience with Hebrew or prayers,” Levinson said. “There are a lot of opportunities for singing without words, and participating in activities, so that’s a good way to learn. Also, maybe I’m biased, but I think cooking is a good way to get involved. People who aren’t necessarily Jewish or have friends who are Jewish have cooked in the past, and it’s been a good way for them to experience Shabbat in a more secular way.”