What Judaism On Campus Looks Like to Me

Lawrenceville recently hired a new Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, & Community Engagement, an announcement that made me very hopeful.

Lawrenceville recently hired a new Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, & Community Engagement, an announcement that made me very hopeful. Though Lawrenceville is a relatively diverse school in a number of ways, there remains a hierarchy of cultures on campus. Students and faculty who practice a religion of a Christian denomination are—perhaps unwittingly—prioritized over others. This mostly manifests itself in how various holidays or events are treated on campus. I noticed it personally last September when it was time for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance. Rabbi Lauren Levy H’97 ‘01 P’01 ‘02 ‘09 sent out an email explaining the holiday to the student body and faculty, however, because students tend to discard all-school emails, it was largely insufficient. Ultimately, it felt like it was my responsibility to excuse myself from school and explain to my teachers why those days were as important Christmas or Easter—two holidays that people would never question the importance of. I understand why Christain holidays are more commonly known—after all, the majority of religious people on campus are Christian or are more familiar with that religion. Nevertheless, the lack of familiarity with other religions creates disparities on campus that often leave people of non-Christian faiths feeling singled out, revealing the need for more active efforts to increase students’ and teachers’ awareness of other religious traditions.

My identity as a Jewish woman is a key component of how I was raised. It is the source of my sense of morality, my core values, and my undying love for bagels and cream cheese. I live across the street from my synagogue in New York City, where I went to school from preschool through fifth grade, after which I continued to be an active member in my Hebrew school community all the way through my Confirmation in 10th grade. Contrary to the experiences of many, in the small bubble I lived in until I came to Lawrenceville, I never felt like being Jewish made me a minority.

And so, arriving at Lawrenceville was a culture shock because the Jewish community on campus was relatively small compared to that of other Christian sects. Although those who also practice Judaism have been incredibly warm and welcoming, especially Rabbi Levy, whom I’ve developed a very close relationship with, it still felt strange to be surrounded by people who didn’t understand my religion. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where my traditions and religion were not regarded as the “norm” and I felt the pressure to constantly explain my traditions and needs to my teachers.

At the beginning of the year, I wanted to attend services to open the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. I didn’t need to go, but I didn’t want my traditions to die just because I wasn’t with my family. As I walked the 500 feet from Stanley House to the front doors of the nearby chapel and sat in a pew, surrounded by laughing families and old friends, I had never felt more alone. I couldn’t help the tears streaming down my face because of the intense, suffocating, empty feeling of going through the motions of something that should have felt familiar but instead felt completely wrong. It quickly became important that I be at home with my family for the holiday, yet I felt as though my needs were not fully acknowledged by my teachers.

The next day, I was one of the few who excused themselves from classes to attend services, and every one of my teachers wanted to see me in consultation the very next day, expecting that I would be caught up on work by then. I felt so much anxiety about missing classes that right after the services ended, I rushed to F period, still dressed in my dress and high heels. I attended the Rosh Hashanah dinner that night at Rabbi’s house, but I had to stay up late that night to complete my work because I felt guilty asking for more accommodations, even though I had only ever asked for the bare minimum. Perhaps due to the lack of knowledge about the holiday, the importance of Rosh Hashanah was severely downplayed. If it had been a holiday like Easter, my teachers likely would have excused me without any questions and helped me ease back into my work. Instead, I was left to fend for myself as a new student in an unfamiliar place. As a result, I didn’t tell anyone about my struggle with loneliness and lack of belonging, which may have further perpetuated the assumption that the holiday was not important to me as, for example, Christmas is to the majority of students on campus. I decided to go home the following week for Yom Kippur, because I couldn’t stand to face those feelings one more time.

I’m not sharing this story so that people can feel bad for me; I’m sharing it because I think it is important to acknowledge the disparity between our community’s awareness of Christian holidays to those other religions, which are generally less represented on campus. Students’ and teachers’ lack of awareness can cause them to downplay important religious events and negatively shape non-Christian students’ time at Lawrenceville. It’s not that these teachers don’t care about students—they just don’t have the knowledge of how and when to support students of other religions. While I eventually made the decision to miss classes that day, I briefly debated not attending services for the first time in my life. If I were a Christian, I would not have had to agonize over that decision because many of my teachers would have understood my choice through their personal experiences or been able to empathize because Christian culture is more well-known and prevalent on campus. Though different religious holidays are in the Veracross calendar, I have no way of knowing if there was a notice sent out to teachers disallowing them from penalizing their students for missing classes. Ultimately, though, more needs to be done. It is the responsibility of the administration, not the students, to make sure all of the teachers are kept up to date and knowledgeable about important events like these so they can better empathize with their students and make accommodations according to their needs. Students should not be put in a situation where they feel unsupported if they wish to observe a religion. It may never be possible for all religions to be treated with the same level of importance, but more open communication and administrative acknowledgment will allow more students to feel comfortable, respected, and appreciated on campus.

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