Students Find Judaism at Non-Jewish Colleges

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From left: Alysia Donahue, Audrey Bell, Nancy Miller, Dan Markel and Jacob Bank make hamantaschen at Villanova University.

Toward the end of his time in Israel during Birthright, Aaron de Lisser-Ellen finally had his Bar Mitzvah.

He grew up in an interfaith home, and though his family celebrated Jewish holidays and he had attended the B’nai Mitzvahs of his cousins, he had never gone to Hebrew school or experienced the Jewish coming-of-age ritual for himself. To finally have his Bar Mitzvah, especially in Israel, was one of his most meaningful Birthright moments.

The experience even left him with a bit of regret that he hadn’t considered the presence of a Jewish community more when he was choosing a university. De Lisser-Ellen is a sports marketing senior at Saint Joseph’s University, the Jesuit school on City Avenue.

“I wasn’t really concerned what the religious affiliation of a school was when I was looking at where to attend,” de Lisser-Ellen said. “Looking back on it, however, I do wish I had attended a similar size school that had a Hillel program, because then I would have had the opportunity to be exposed to more of my peers, to get more exposure to more Jewish customs.”

De Lisser-Ellen is just one of the Jewish students in the Philadelphia area who attend a university with a Christian affiliation. Students at these universities have had a range of different experiences, from finding themselves one of just a few Jewish students at their school to discovering an active Jewish community on their campus.

De Lisser-Ellen, for example, has met only a handful of other Jewish students during his three years at Saint Joseph’s through classes and other campus activities. In contrast, Villanova University senior Rachel Wolff estimates that there are roughly 30 or 40 Jewish students at the Radnor school, which even has its own student-run Hillel. She will serve as it president this year.

When applying to colleges, de Lisser-Ellen knew he wanted to go to a university that had a small student body and wasn’t located in the heart of the city. He also took his major into consideration: Philadelphia has a large sports market, which could help him get a job after graduation.

This past January, de Lisser-Ellen went on Birthright. As Saint Joseph’s doesn’t have a trip of its own, Birthright assigned him to go with a group of students mostly from the University of Toledo. He made friends there and has kept in touch with some, even visiting one of those friends recently in Cleveland.

This coming school year, de Lisser-Ellen plans to bring his car to campus, and wants to use it to explore more of Philadelphia’s Jewish community.

“I’ll probably just go to downtown Philadelphia, visit my friend and we’ll probably go to Shabbat together somewhere,” he said. “Saint Joe’s is also close to a [synagogue of a] more Conservative branch of Judaism. … There are a couple synagogues near campus. Maybe I’ll try to attend a service.”

At Villanova, a Hillel chapter provides religious and social programming for Jewish students on campus.

Students run the Hillel, with assistance and guidance from Rebecca Winer, an associate professor of history who serves as the organization’s faculty adviser.

Carl Sonnenschein and George Russell participate in a Shabbat service in a Villanova classroom. Photos provided

The organization puts on programming for Shabbat and holidays, where students host dinners in the university’s classrooms and dining halls or other activities, like a hamantaschen baking event for Purim. They arrange transportation to synagogues for services, such as for Yom Kippur. They also have social programming and meetings where students can express what they want out of the organization.

Students of other religions often come to Villanova University Hillel as well, often as friends of Jewish students involved in Hillel or just to learn more about another religion.

“Everyone’s very open,” said Jon Rosen, a junior who has served as vice president of the Hillel and will serve as co-president with Wolff when he returns from studying abroad this fall. “It’s a very strong sense of community.”

Rosen didn’t know the Hillel chapter existed when he was considering what university to attend. He just knew he wanted to attend a university that was close to his home in Southern New Jersey. His mother is a Villanova alum and she had a good experience there as well.

He learned about the Hillel at the beginning of his freshman year at a student organizations fair, and “hit the ground running” with his involvement. He had found that most of the Jewish students at Villanova share his perspective in terms of Jewish identity.

“I value a lot my identity as being Jewish and the culture of being Jewish,” Rosen said. “I’m particularly not very religious, and I found other students [are] the same way here.”

In contrast, Wolff learned about Villanova’s Hillel before she enrolled.

She liked the campus culture, but the school’s Catholic affiliation gave her and her family pause. Learning about the Hillel solidified her decision to attend Villanova and put her mother and grandmother at ease with her choice.

“As long as I would be able to meet with other Jewish students on campus — even though there aren’t that many — but at least I would have that community, I did not think that it would be a problem at all going to Catholic school,” Wolff said.

She got involved in Hillel right away, including serving as events coordinator the past two years. Wolff said she has seen the amount of programming the Hillel puts on increase during her time at Villanova.

As a Jewish student at a Catholic university, she said she has not faced any issues or obstacles.

“I have found Villanova to be extremely understanding and accepting,” Wolff said. “I remember, freshman year, I was very nervous. I didn’t really know how it would be perceived, and I remember during orientation, I told the people in my group and everyone seemed really interested, and I got a lot of [nice] questions.” 

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