Lehigh University Jewish Community Enjoying New Home

Lehigh University’s new Jewish Student Center on West Packer Avenue (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

Walking into Lehigh University’s new Jewish Student Center on a weekday, you might find one student lounging on a couch in the downstairs meeting room, doing school work on his laptop.

You might find another upstairs in an office, sitting at a table, also completing assignments on his computer. And you may find others hanging out in the basement gaming area, making food in the kitchen at the back of the building or relaxing on the porch out front.

This private, mid-sized university in Bethlehem has more than 7,000 students, almost 20% of whom are Jewish, according to Rabbi Steve Nathan, the director of Jewish student life. And now, after moving to this new center at 233 W. Packer Ave., those Jewish students have a big enough home to host Shabbat dinners, gather with other religious groups and … just … kill time in between classes.

“It’s sort of a home away from home,” Nathan said. “Luckily, we haven’t had any major issues here with antisemitism, but if that were to happen, certainly it’s nice to have a place.”

Nathan, Tyler Katz, the engagement and programming associate for Lehigh’s Hillel chapter, and Jane Hontz, the coordinator for the Office of Jewish Student Life, moved to their new home in November. Their previous space was a twin house off campus with two floors and no finished basement. The West Packer Avenue building, according to Nathan, is about three times the size.

The Shabbat gathering room inside Lehigh’s Jewish Student Center (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

A nonprofit organization separate from Lehigh called the Jewish Student Advisory Council used to pay for the Jewish community’s old home near the university. But when the Office of Jewish Student Life became a Lehigh organization in 2008, it “kept bugging,” in Nathan’s words, the school’s leaders for a place on campus. The university reached out to Nathan last year with an option.

Now, it serves as “the official address of all things Jewish” at Lehigh, according to hillel.lehigh.edu. And the address is just steps away from a big “Lehigh University” sign in the middle of campus. It is also only a block up from the classroom buildings that see traffic throughout the weekdays. Spend an hour or two around the building and you will see groups of students walking by. Plus, with a big sign out front, the Jewish Student Center’s role is unmistakable. Two prospective Lehigh students walked in recently and said as much to the rabbi.

“Both of them were saying how nice it is to have a place where it’s not just a place to come for Shabbat dinner,” the rabbi said. “But a place that you can actually feel like it’s home.”

As Nathan was talking, he looked across the room at Alec Eskin, a freshman sitting on a couch in the downstairs meeting room. But he was not there for a meeting. He was there to sit back and do work on his laptop on a Friday afternoon.

“You could be studying somewhere else,” Nathan said to Eskin. “But you are often here just because, I think, it does feel like home.”

Lehigh freshman Alec Eskin at the Jewish Student Center (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

Eskin is a finance major from Delaware County. Growing up, he belonged to the Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester with his family. Eskin did BBYO in high school and came to view Judaism as a way to bond with other people. Now as a freshman away from home, he goes to Shabbat dinner at the center almost every Friday night.

“It’s a way for you to feel at home,” he said.

Upstairs at the same time, Lucas Bennett, a junior at Lehigh, was also doing schoolwork on his computer. Bennett, similar to Eskin, grew up in Delaware County in a family that attended Congregation Beth Israel of Media. He found the off-campus Jewish Student Center as a freshman with his roommate when they were looking for a Rosh Hashanah service. They met Nathan and kept coming back for different events.

Lehigh junior Lucas Bennett is on the senior programming staff at the Jewish Student Center. (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

Today, Bennett works for the center trying to attract students to those same events. He is on the senior programming staff that hosts diversity Shabbats, kosher halal soul food dinners and a Moon Festival Shabbat, among other multicultural gatherings. Bennett views the Jewish Student Center as not just a home for Jews, but a place where they can connect with members of other groups like the Muslim community and the Chinese community.

“You learn so much more by being able to share it with other people and learn about other people’s religions and cultures,” he said. “It’s been pretty special to, kind of, experience that.” ■

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