Expectations: A Retrospective on Jewish Life in Secular Colleges

This is my first blog post, so I wanted to speak a bit about expectations.

With my senior year approaching, I’ve been thinking about my expectations now versus when I first entered college, or perhaps further back when I first was accepted. It’s an interesting thought: what were my expectations for freshman year, especially since I was an observant Jewish teen fresh off the boat from a year in an Israeli yeshiva entering a secular college.  Maybe it’s worth a larger conversation. What should we be telling our children and peers looking to go to colleges that are perhaps outside the religious norm? Even universities on the regular orthodox radar there are challenges. Do we fully understand when entering the college process what our religious expectations should be, not just in the classroom, but also among our peers?

I suppose my freshman year was a little different than most, and because of that a lot of my optimism when starting something new has begun to fade away. With my father passing away a month before school started, I chose to observe the laws of mourning which include not going to parties and concerts and saying Kaddish at every service. My non-Jewish roommates did try and make me feel welcome for a time, but eventually my observance would not jive with their expectations of college life. Since then I have only lived with observant Jews, but that doesn’t mean I do not have a diverse group of friends.

While GW has a very large Jewish Student body (the fifth largest, according to this statistic) only about a fifth of that population is actively involved in Jewish life and Israel Activism. There are three major Jewish Organizations and two Israel activist groups on campus, all of which offering something a little different, but all five certainly carry a presence throughout campus. As far as resources are concerned, the university and its campus carry with it a potential for an extremely vibrant Jewish life.

However, for observant Jews, there is a serious lack in Jewish community on campus. With only about 15 to 20 orthodox students and only a handful more that consider themselves traditional, it was a struggle to provide the basic amenities when I first stepped on campus. Minyan, daily services requiring ten men over the age of bar-mitzvah, was impossible except Friday night (and even then it was a challenge) zero learning opportunities and a lackluster kosher meal plan were challenges that are still present. It was a slow start, but stepping into a leadership position, the other new orthodox students and I took charge and, while we lost the kosher dining option on campus, our invigorated Jewish student groups quickly created alternatives, minyan, and learning opportunities.

I often have conversations with perspective parents about college and Jewish life and I always start of with a generalization: there are places where there is already an established Jewish community. Being observant, while still a challenge, is significantly easier. In these universities if you would like to become a leader in Jewish life, you can, but if you just want to enjoy it and focus on other initiatives, take that time as well. There are also colleges where whether you like it or not, you have to be a Jewish leader (or at least take some part in helping the system) otherwise Jewish needs fall by the wayside. Each university comes with its own set of challenges, and I often have conversations with my cousin, a student leader at University of Maryland, about what we have in common and how we differ in leading religious life.

Never expect in others what you cannot deliver yourself in some way or another. I found myself constantly at odds with my peers when they did not live up to the impossible expectations I had for them. My gentile roommates were not fully at fault for being at odds with my religious necessities and still enjoy a full freshman year, and it may have been wrong of me to assume they would not. Sometimes expectations fall flat and we have to grow from them. Other times they flower with success and have an incredible ripple effect, inspiring others.

For example: Israel activism on my campus had lost its luster in the past few years. Splitting and political preferences caused rifts in programming and a lack of unity. Within the first week of Pillar of Defense, the lack of educational programming or even support was showing and it was reflecting poorly on the Jewish and Pro-Israel groups. When we heard that a march on the White House by Pro-Palestinian activists was happening, a small group of leaders including myself organized a rally to meet them there, celebrating Israel and the United States strong ties. What started as a twenty-person Facebook event spiraled quickly, with 150 students from four universities present and 400 others voicing support from the DC metropolitan area. Coincidently, we were hosting at the Hillel an interfaith Shabbat dinner that very weekend. Despite my own expectations Muslim students came and it was one of the most eclectic, electric and educational Shabbatot of my life. Dialogues between groups with different views began springing up and Israel activism was at an amazing high.

Ultimately, though not without its messy moments I would not have traded the experiences I have had at GW for anything. Were my expectations always met? Of course not, but in their place I found something in myself that I did not know I had. I think any involved Jewish student at GW can say the same thing, developing their own identities supported by our Jewish community. Secular college is not an easy place to be observant, but we become stronger in our belief because of our experiences throughout our four years.

I started this blog because in the past three years I have been interacting with Jewish and non-Jewish students from every sort of the religious spectrum, and I have observed a lot of fascinating moments and musings. I want this blog to be a safe space to share your experiences, thoughts and troubles, since I love hearing from others. This is not me talking at you, but a conversations starter. Keep me in check; make sure I am living up to my own expectations, because I don’t wish to disappoint.


About the Author
Gabriel Felder is a rising senior at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. He has also served multiple positions in the GWU Hillel and has largely focused on faith based dialogue on campus.
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