STUDENTS SHARE THEIR EXPERIENCES AND ADVICE ON NAVIGATING THE COLLEGE ENVIRONMENT AS AN ORTHODOX JEW.
SURVIVING OR THRIVING?
Even though I still live at home, life in college feels like it is worlds away from my experience as a student in an Orthodox private high school. In my academic studies, I am constantly confronted with ideas, often stated as facts, that conflict with Jewish thought. Outside of the classroom, the social norms differ greatly from the standards at the Orthodox high school I attended. I decided early on that I had to create a ‘game plan’ to navigate this new environment and to ensure that I continue to thrive religiously:
- Choose to Care— Your decision to care about your Judaism is the most essential prerequisite to maintaining religious observance in college. While our Jewish identity is something both innate and eternal, each of us decides how much Judaism shapes our daily lives. You can be surrounded by incredible Jewish resources on campus: Torah learning, minyanim, kosher food, and social events. However, there will be many other things competing for your time, and you will have to decide which activities to prioritize in your daily schedule. If you are nonchalant about your connection to Judaism, and don’t take advantage of the resources around you, you may find yourself slowly slipping in your religious observance.
- Find a Mentor— This is also of the utmost importance. Prior to college, I did not have a mentor or someone I turned to for Jewish guidance. I am thankful that when I started college I was able to forge a relationship with my school’s OU-JLIC couple. I feel comfortable speaking to our OU-JLIC couple about personal questions, Judaism-related questions, and anything in between. I cannot stress how vital it is to have a mentor. Don’t think you are bothering them by asking questions, and don’t feel shy to open up. They have heard it all and they are happy to help.
- Rediscover Judaism – When you are in an Orthodox elementary school and high school, and everyone else around you is also an Orthodox Jew, it is much easier to maintain your religious observance. College is completely different; when you go to college you will need to create a personal connection to Judaism in order to thrive religiously. The college years are a crucial time to reflect on Judaism, contemplate what it means to you as an individual, and seek answers to any questions you may have. Personally, I had many questions regarding Torah and Science. I carved out time to speak to my Rabbi and Rebbetzin about these questions. I did not find every answer I received to be satisfactory, but the discussions inspired me to speak to different scholars and attend events on the topic of Torah and science.
- Hold yourself accountable– I’m still working on this one! It’s easy to reach a ‘religious plateau’ and say to yourself “I’m doing enough” or “maybe I don’t need to be so strict about halachah.” When you notice this self-talk, consider whether you are, in fact, just making excuses for yourself. If you do decide to be lenient on a specific halachah, it’s wise to speak to a mentor or a trusted friend to hear his/her perspective on the particular issue. I constantly try to keep in mind the saying, “If you’re not moving up, you’re moving down.”
By: Serach Shafa, student at UCLA
WHEN IN ROME
Studying abroad never seemed like a viable option as an Orthodox Jew: how would I observe Shabbat and keep kosher on a foreign study program? Nonetheless, when I heard about a three week winter course in Italy, I decided I had to find a way to attend. The professor coordinating the trip helped me organize the delivery of kosher meals to my hotel in Sorrento, and I discovered that there were many kosher restaurants in Rome. Shabbat in Rome, with some slight schedule adjustments, was also easy to arrange. I adjusted my travel plans to arrive a day earlier than the rest of the class in Rome (on Friday rather than Saturday), and I arranged Shabbat meals through Chabad. Thankfully, there was another Orthodox Jew on the trip; I was happy to not be the only one eating strange food or observing Shabbat on the program! The winter course in Italy was off to a great start until my observant classmate and I discovered that our prepackaged meals would never arrive. We were stuck in a country with almost no kosher food in the supermarkets, and in a city with no kosher restaurants. The rest of my time in Sorrento was rough. I watched my classmates devour homemade neapolitan pizzas and fresh caprese, while I lived on fruit and raw nuts. The other Orthodox participant on the program and I reached a near breaking point. We decided to make the best out of a challenging situation. We received permission from the hotel to cook in their kitchen which was a complete lifesaver. We stocked up on produce, eggs, and pasta at the local grocery store, and raced back to the hotel kitchen to cook up a feast using only an oven and tin pans double wrapped in aluminum foil. My experience in Sorrento was definitely an adventure that taught me new unexpected skills (including how to boil pasta in an oven)! Thankfully, the delicacies of the Jewish ghetto in Rome made up for all the food troubles in Sorrento. The trip to Italy ended up being a phenomenal trip. I am so happy that—with the help of a little creativity—I was able to study abroad while maintaining my Jewish values.
By: Gwynne Gershenson, student at University of Maryland
FROM SINGLE-GENDER TO COED
Coming from a single-gender high school and summer camp, my exposure to coed environments was limited. Stepping onto campus was a new and intimidating experience for me.
My religious lifestyle differs from many of my Orthodox peers; nonetheless, I know that the other members of the community respect me for my authenticity. There are, at times, social gatherings that I choose to not attend because I know that I will not feel comfortable at the party, dinner or outing. I have never regretted these choices, nor have I ever felt any less involved in Orthodox life—on a social or communal level—because of these decisions.
Despite the challenges I have faced as a member of a young, coed community, I believe that there are also unique benefits to the coed reality on campus: I can easily daven three times a day with a minyan, and I am able to partake of the many varied shiurim and Torah learning opportunities available on campus each week. I am thankful to be part of a functional, thriving and passionate community that has helped enable my religious development and growth during my time on campus.
By: Anonymous student at an Ivy League college