Dear Jewish First-Years,

Hello and welcome to your first year on campus. I am a rising sophomore at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Although I grew up attending Hebrew School and Jewish summer camp, before going to Brown I really didn’t expect that Jewish life in college would be as important to me as it now is.

If you are a Jew and you are just beginning your college experience, I have four tips for you to keep in mind:

One: The Jewish community can be an important part of your life in college, even if it was not at home. Many people “discover” their Judaism for the first time in college. They realize that, perhaps unlike at home, it is suddenly entirely up to them to choose how they practice (or don’t) their religion, how they connect (or don’t) with their heritage, and how they relate (or don’t) to the Jewish people. For that reason, it is not unusual for students who haven’t said a prayer since they were thirteen years old to become regulars at Hillel services.

College is an especially great place to begin participating in Judaism because even services, which at home might be dull, are spirited celebrations at school. I love my local synagogue, but the Conservative Movement is (to put it kindly) aging, so to me it is exciting to be surrounded by young, likeminded Jews on Friday nights. I especially enjoy our social get-togethers after dinner each week. Getting started in college is easier and more fun if you have something of a home base – the Jewish community was that for me.

Two: College in general is a great place to be Jewish. Even if you are not religious and do not have an interest in formally plugging into the Jewish community on campus, college is a great place to be Jewish. It is a heavily academic and intellectual environment, and there are countless opportunities to engage in all manner of social justice work. If your Jewish parents raised you to appreciate deep thinking and tikkun olam, you will love college just for what it is.

Three: Hillel is awesome. Although not all Jewish students on campus find a community at Hillel, for me it has been beyond amazing. It is a fundamentally different model from the synagogue. Unlike at home, where the primary Jewish communal institution is essentially religious, Hillel presents an approach to Judaism that is incredibly multifaceted and diverse. There are regular services, but those are only a fraction of Hillel’s function. Two crucial, non-religious ways that I express my Judaism, for example, are through social justice and Zionism.

At Hillel, I chair the Tzedek (Justice) Committee, and am also involved with more cause-specific groups such as JewQ (Brown’s Jewish queer group). I am part of the Brown Students for Israel leadership, also under the Hillel umbrella. While those are my primary interests, Hillel offers so much more than that: there is a Jews of Color Group, the a capalla Aleph Beats, Jewish meditation sessions, kabbalah study – to name but a few. Our Israel Fellow even hosts Hebrew-language lunches and teaches a mini-course in Palestinian Arabic. Whatever Judaism means to you, you can express it at Hillel.

Four: The Jewish community goes beyond Hillel. As fantastic as Hillel is, there are other ways to be Jewish on campus, too. There are Greek organizations such as AEPi and ZBT, which host the craziest Purim bashes on campus. At the University of Chicago, my AEPi-affiliated cousin especially loves the annual “Latke-Hamantash Debate.” There are also non-Hillel religious organizations such as Chabad, which often establishes a campus presence and invites students for a good fleshik meal every once in a while, or MEOR, which guides students through difficult religious texts. I have especially appreciated the Judaic Studies department at Brown, which offers courses on everything from Israel’s military history to Yiddish Language and Culture. I have learned so much about the history of my people through those classes, and have gained a new appreciation for my heritage.

I have found a Jewish community at Brown more fabulous than I ever could have imagined. While every school is different, I am certain that you have a wonderful next few years ahead of you, too.

If you have any questions about Jewish life on campus, especially if you are coming to Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design, or just about any other school in the Providence area, please feel free to contact me at Benjamin_Gladstone@brown.edu.

Sincerely,

Ben Gladstone
Brown University, Class of 2018