Shabbat on Campus?
I recently spent Shabbat on the Columbia-Barnard campus. I happened to end up talking to a girl who had recently transferred from Stern. When I asked her what her reasons were, she gave several reasons, among them thefact that:
“I wasn’t happy with the Jewish community there.”
“What Jewish community?” I promptly responded.
This is my second semester on campus. Coming in to Stern, I never thought I would face the same struggles as my friends on secular campuses, and in many ways I don’t. I don’t have to struggle to explain my religious observance to a non-Jewish roommate, nor do I miss classes because of chagim. I had hoped to be in an environment in which people took advantage of the incredible opportunity that they had been given by being in an entirely Jewish environment. I anticipated a vibrant Shabbat life. However, upon arriving on campus, the rhetoric surrounding Shabbat was that it was “lame” or “boring” and since I live close by I will most likely spend my weekends at home. In some ways, the entirely Jewish environment has created an atmosphere of complacency with regards to building a Jewish community. Rather than taking advantage of our enormous Jewish population, somehow YU and Stern have become notorious for their lackluster Shabbat experiences. It seems that because we do not have to put in the same amount of effort to maintain a Jewish community as our friends at secular colleges, we simply choose not to.
At any other college, we would be a few among thousands of students, and it would be our natural instinct to seek out those with whom we share a common ground (i.e. the Jewish population at the Hillel and/or Chabad). We would make the effort, as many of our friends do, to go to Shabbat meals, join weekly shiurim, get invited to meals, go to minyan, and so forth. One would think that at Stern and YU, where we have a plethora of Jews, that our Shabbatot would be that much more enriching, but they aren’t. It seems that because we aren’t a minority of students, we lack that natural instinct to seek out others like ourselves. This is obvious since we’re all Jews here, but isn’t it ironic that at one of the only Jewish universities in the world, there is such a severely lacking Jewish community?
As trivial as this may seem, I think a large source of the problem is the fact that students at YU have to pay for Shabbat meals. At other colleges Jewish students generally do not have to pay for Shabbat meals; these meals are free when provided by Chabad, and, with some exceptions, the Hillel on campus is usually also free. So to someone who either lives close by or even to an out-of-towner with access to the other college campuses in Manhattan, why use caf card money to pay for something that is free on every other college campus?
I am aware of YU’s current financial straits and that perhaps providing free Shabbat meals may not currently be financially possible. However, if we are truly committed to enhancing the Shabbat life and the overall Jewish community life at YU, then I think finding a way to provide free Shabbat meals is the first step.
Of course, this is not a new issue on campus. YU has had this reputation for quite some time, hence the creation of the Shabbat Enhancement Committee on both the Beren and Wilf campus. Carmelle Danneman, the president of the SEC on the Beren campus describes some of their efforts: “Every week the SEC works with TAC, Aliza Abrams, and Tami Adelson for many, many hours trying to plan the best, and most exciting programming for Shabbat. We meet weekly on Tuesdays discussing Shabbat programming which includes: activities, shiurim, Divrei Torah, onegs, the Bronsteins, special club sponsored shabbatonim, fliers, davening, sstuds, speakers, scheduling, and most importantly... the food. Together we try to make Shabbat here on campus the best it can be.”
In terms of improving Shabbat life, Danneman emphasizes that the SEC really attempts to take the student body’s feedback into consideration. For example, “This year we have really been trying to improve the food and we have worked with Mr. Singer to ensure that the food is satisfying for everyone.” She elaborated, “Everyone has many different suggestions like having coed minyans every week to having coed Shabbatonim every week on Beren or trying to get uptown or trying to please everyone by having all the dessert options every week. I also think trying to get people to stay in for Shabbat is difficult. Many students live nearby and want to be home for Shabbat and that is something we can't always control. However, we try to have various speakers and programs each week to sway those who wish to go home not to! So I think some of the bigger factors are a bit out of control, but we do listen to feedback, work long hours, and try extremely hard to make sure everyone's experience is positive and enjoyable.”
Issues with Shabbat life on the Wilf campus are a bit more complicated. According to Shua Brick, of uptown’s SEC, “Shabbatot at YU are generally geared towards the more “yeshivish” community, which is often unappealing for students who simply want a “Jewish community feel” on campus. The SOY board on Wilf has been working to create programming that is geared towards both demographics at YU. For starters, shabbatot will now be called “community Shabbos’” as opposed to an “in-Shabbos”, which has a very yeshivish connotation. Additionally, on one Shabbos, there was a regular tisch with a rosh yeshiva happening at the same time as a taboo tournament.”
Brick explained that, “There is a mentality on the Wilf campus of “hating Shabbat at YU...” but on an average Shabbat, many YU students still go to minyan on campus and simply choose to eat in their apartments in the Heights. In order to create a more unified atmosphere for Shabbatot, SOY will soon be launching anywhereintheheights.com, a website on which students can sign up to have meals in the heights through YU. That way, it will contextualize shabbat in the Heights as a YU shabbat, and subsequently change the mindset of “hating shabbat at YU.”
Ultimately, however, the shift has to come from the student body. Clearly, the Shabbat Enhancement Committee on both campuses has been doing excellent work. But there also has to be a student-led initiative. As a student body, itis up to us to decide that creating a stronger community at our university is more important than going home every weekend or visiting another campus. The Shabbat Enhancement Committee is a wonderful idea, but their efforts only work if we as a student body take advantage of their efforts.
These claims obviously do not apply to every student at Stern or YU. I am well aware that there are many students, both out-of-towners and in-towners, who choose to stay in for Shabbat on a semi-regular basis. These students are already part of the solution to our problem. I am mainly directing my claims at those who are too quick to write off Stern or YU as an option for their weekend plans.
This is obviously a complicated problem with many different factors that will take a long time to solve. But I truly believe that with the right attitude and true commitment, we as a community can truly enhance the Jewish experience at YU and Stern.