About this time last year, 21-year-old Sarah Zolkower stood before more than 30 fellow undergraduates at St. Joseph's University, maneuvering action figures through red Jell-O to re-enact the story of Moses parting the Red Sea.
Nontraditional -- yes. But it was Zolkower's way or no Passover seder at all on her Catholic campus. But that changed this year. On Sunday, Zolkower joined about 120 other people, Jews and non-Jews alike, gathered for the first offical interfaith seder at St. Joe's.
It is just one of several initiatives that local Catholic colleges have created in recent years to connect with their few Jewish students -- and educate non-Jewish students about the religion.
Schools like St. Joe's have long offered classes or special events related to Jewish history, culture and religious practices. Judaism is, after all, the root of Christianity. But you might be surprised by the number and variety of Jewish programs that have popped up lately.
In addition to St. Joe's, La Salle and Villanova universities now offer students opportunities to hear guest lectures on Jewish topics, watch Israeli movies, study the Hebrew Bible with Jewish professors -- and even take a trip to the Holy Land.
St. Joe's has offered courses about Judaism and the Holocaust since at least 1967, when it founded an Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations. In addition to developing classes, institute staff organize events and host Holocaust conferences. Last May, for example, the institute put together its first on-campus memorial for Yom Hashoah.
More recently, the institute began experimenting with new courses that examine the intersection of Judaism and Christianity, said Philip A. Cunningham, a theology professor who directs the institute. He'll co-teach one pilot course, "Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Bible," this fall with a local rabbi.
The seder, another first, seemed like a perfect setting to learn about the similarities between the religions and enjoy a celebration together, said Cunningham. In addition to participants from St. Joe's, other area institutions contributed representatives.
The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood; Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley; Adath Israel in Merion Station; and SJU's Interfaith Task Force.
"To understand ourselves, we have to understand the Jewish tradition," said Cunningham.
That's the reason junior Holly Colaguori signed up for the event.
Colaguori said she'd attended seders at her church in past years, but always wondered where that tradition came from or if there really was such a thing as a Christian seder. Christians shouldn't deny their connections to Jews, the 21-year-old fine-arts major said, because "we have a lot to learn from them."
Kerryn Sklarow of Bensalem, a sophomore with a dual major in special and elementary education, attended the seder with two classmates who are taking a theology class together. Growing up in Bucks County, she said, she attended at least two-dozen Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies during her middle-school years, and has lots of Jewish friends.
"I heard the Passover holiday was strict and wanted to learn more about it," she said.
Trevor Wargo, a freshman from Rockland County, N.Y., who is majoring in food marketing, attended the seder based on a professor's recommendation. "I am taking a philosophy class about the ethics of food, and I thought this seder would be interesting to attend," he said.
Bogdan Kachur, a senior, said a religion class inspired him to learn more about Judaism. He also has a Jewish girlfriend, Heather Goldsmith, who graduated St. Joe's last year.
A native of Voorhees, N.J., Goldsmith said that when she was deciding on college, she wanted to stay close to home and opted to follow her father, an alumnus.
"I loved campus life here," she said. "Even though there aren't a lot of Jewish students, I never encountered any issue. All of my professors were very supportive, and I had a great experience here."
While St. Joe's has made efforts to enrich academic study of Judaism, there's no organized Jewish life on campus. Rabbi Howard Alpert, who oversees all the Hillels in the Greater Philadelphia area, said he's never heard of more than a handful of Jewish students there.· · ·
Likewise, there's no Hillel at LaSalle, which counts 48 out of 4,487 undergraduates who identified as Jewish on a university survey and probably fewer than a dozen Jewish faculty members, said Bob Vogel, an education professor.
Vogel is active in the Jewish community, and has been to Israel multiple times on personal and academic missions. But it wasn't until this semester that he had the chance to share his knowledge of the country with students in his "Leadership and Global Understanding" program.
For the past nine years, he's taken his students for an up-close look at the educational systems in whatever country they were studying over a 10-day spring-break tour.
For the half-semester leading up to the trip, 16 students -- none of them Jewish -- learned about the country's history and culture through guest speakers, including Israelis and Palestinians. Those presentations, along with the trip itinerary, were designed to give students a dual perspective of the country, said Vogel.
"I don't want them to think I'm propagandizing Israel, that's not what I do as a teacher," he said. "I want them to have as many facts as possible so they can do what they think."
The more exposure these young people have to Israel, he continued, the more "they're going to understand the power of the country and why we need to support the democratic state out there. They only get that by experiencing it."
Three days after returning from the trip, Suzanne Lipovsky, a 21-year-old social-policy major, flipped through the itinerary to remind herself of all they'd done.
The whole experience was so intense, she recounted.
"You realize while you're there the complexity of the situation is even greater than you imagined," she said. "When you think you have it nailed down, another layer is added, and it just jumbles everything up again."
Being there made it easier to understand why the Israelis felt it was so important to have a Jewish state and why the Palestinians felt they should reclaim the land, said Kerrin Garripoli, an 18-year-old freshman.
"I came in very balanced, I came out very balanced," said Garripoli. "But while I was there I could really feel a tug going back and forth."· · ·
Of the three major Catholic schools in the area, Villanova appears to have the most organized Jewish life, which, in turn, has bolstered the amount of related academic offerings.
A couple of years ago, administrators solicited suggestions for Jewish scripture scholars to talk about the Genesis text that all students study during a required interdisciplinary seminar.
To keep the discussion going, Jewish faculty members formed an extracurricular study group to examine a different topic from the Hebrew Bible on the first Friday of every month. A mix of about 25 mostly Jewish faculty regularly attend the sessions, along with a sprinkling of students and non-Jewish professors, said Ruth Anolik, an English and humanities professor.
"The faculty benefits from meeting each other, and it really benefits our teaching so we understand that our assumptions about our sacred text are not universal," said Anolik.
Last fall, the university also started a "Jewish Religion and Culture" lecture series. The fourth presentation, slated for this week, focused on Purim. The idea is to deepen Catholic students' understanding of their connection to the Jewish heritage, while at the same time show Jews on campus that their contributions are valued, too, said Barbara Wall, vice president for the Office of Mission and Ministry, and a philosophy professor.
Wall's office pays an $800 stipend for the speakers, as well as travel expenses, though other departments occasionally pitch in as co-sponsors.
"It's not proselytizing; it's just opening up the possibility that this is a very rich tradition, come and see," she said. "Whoever is at Villanova, my hope" would be that "they could flourish in their faith tradition," said Wall.
As a person interested in her own faith, Anolik said, "I love that I can talk about the Bible with my students" and ask questions like "how do you read the Bible, how do you maintain faith in an age of skepticism?" In addition to challenging students to balance faith with critical thinking, she said: "It's helping people understand Jewish culture and religion in a way they might not typically be able to."
Better yet, she said, the students seem really into philosophy and theology.
"The dominant culture doesn't usually get to see the minority culture," said Anolik. "We can share our knowledge, our understanding with people who care about our perspective."
More opportunities to do that are in the works for the fall. At students' request, history professor Rebecca Winer, who also advises a small Hillel group, petitioned the university to offer a beginning-level modern Hebrew course. She's also secured seed money to start an annual Israel lecture.
Senior Kara Arnold, a 21-year-old history major, has attended almost all of the Jewish-themed lectures so far, intrigued after taking a pre-modern history course with Winer. She also attended a few Hillel programs, where she said she was pleasantly surprised to find the students welcoming her, a self-described "extremely religious" campus ministry leader.
"I felt like it was my duty as a Christian to understand the Jewish faith if I was going to have a complete understanding of where Christianity came from," said Arnold. "It's one thing to read about it in a textbook. I was interested in seeing what it was like to be a part of it."
(Freelancer Erica Lamberg contributed to this report.)