The Conspiracy

Why This Religious Jew Wants a Non-Jewish Roommate

Pupin Hall, the physics building at Columbia. | CC via Wikimedia Commons

Around winter break, during the peak of Israel’s “Birthright season,” I received an invitation from the Columbia/Barnard Hillel to attend a meet-up in Jerusalem for gap-year students in Israel. It was the first time the thought of college had even crossed my mind – I had been doing a pretty good job of focusing on my year studying at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, staying present in the moment and taking advantage of the unique experience of living in the Land of Israel before going off to Columbia University next year. Nevertheless, I clicked “yes” on the Facebook event, eager to meet those with whom I’ll be spending the next four years.

The event was standard, nothing to WhatsApp home about: I played a few rapid-fire rounds of my favorite game – Jewish Geography, Gap Year edition – with the incoming freshmen at my corner of the Burgers Bar table, introduced myself to the friendly Hillel rabbi, and noshed on some pita and hummus. Every now and again I paused and looked around at the room filled to capacity with students past, present, and future, and breathed a sigh of relief, reassured that after this year in Israel, I’ll still have a vibrant Jewish community around me in Morningside Heights.

On the two-and-a-half hour bus back up to yeshiva, I debriefed the meet-up with the two other Ma’ale Gilboa guys attending Columbia next year.

“It felt like speed-dating,” one said. “We were meeting people so fast I barely had time to make a first impression.”

“Honestly,” the other responded. “How were we supposed to decide who to room with next year based on that quick of an interaction?”

His comment struck a chord within me, reviving an old dilemma I thought a lot about senior year but had lay dormant over the year in yeshiva: Who do I room with freshman year? My friend made it seem as if was a given, that the only move for observant Jewish kids in college is to find a similarly minded member of the Tribe to live with. But is it?

I’m currently living in the only Jewish state in the world, on a small kibbutz in the north inhabited exclusively by religious kibbutzniks and other yeshiva students. I chose this place because I wanted to live an immersive Jewish lifestyle, a place to explore my Judaism in an environment where serious commitment to halachic observance is the norm. The yeshiva facilitates three minyanim a day, kosher food (including observance of the laws of shmita – it is the seventh year of the cycle, after all), and more Torah study than I could ever have dreamed of. This is exactly what I wanted.

I’m fully aware, however, that I won’t spend the rest of my life on top of a mountain in the middle of Israel. My new Israeli friends don’t quite understand the sacrifices that maintaining normative Jewish practice in chutz la’aretz, the rest of the world, requires; how could they? Even their national army allows them time to pray each day. Away from the archetypal bubble that I grew up in and, perhaps, have ventured deeper into this year, I’ll be reminded that Judaism is still a minority. Living a serious Jewish lifestyle in college, especially one that feels as casual and natural as my current one does, will require extra discipline and determination.

Bearing all that in mind, then, it would make most sense for me to choose the Jewish roommate, someone a year older than most freshmen because he spent the year in yeshiva in Israel too. I should find a kid who wouldn’t blink twice if I started wrapping leather straps around my arm in the morning, who’d understand why I can’t eat M&M’s after my burger in a different section of the cafeteria. We would help each other readjust to our lives as Diaspora Jews and make sure our commitments to Judaism would survive the transition.

But I don’t think I want that. College represents a host of new opportunities for me, foremost among them the chance to meet new and different people for the first time in my life. I didn’t leave my predominately Jewish childhood community in Chicago just to enter an equally homogenous one in New York. I’m overwhelmingly excited at the prospect of being able to explain tefillin to my roommate from Montana or Singapore or even Palestine. I crave the diversity that college offers because after spending the year strengthening and enhancing my own identity, I feel more prepared to appreciate the vast assortment of cultures and people that make up a college campus and the world.

It’s true that problems like assimilation and intermarriage only arose post-Emancipation, when Jews were suddenly allowed to integrate with society at large, and the social norms that halacha preaches are most easily abided by when each member of the society conforms. However, if I need to be escorted by a Jewish presence around me every moment of the day, that speaks volumes about the confidence (or lack thereof) I have in my own convictions. I certainly see myself spending significant time at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, surrounded by the wonderful Jewish community I know exists there. But if I have to burrow so deeply that I can’t maintain a single friendship with someone outside of it, it will have become a crutch, condemning me to remaining sheltered all my life.

I’ll have to learn how to explain cultural phenomena that I never had to describe to my friends from day school and yeshiva. References to Judaism permeate my entire vocabulary, and the first few times I have to define phrases like “shlepping my books” or “We’re just Shabbos dinner friends, ya know?” will definitely be odd. I’m prepared for that, though, and I eagerly anticipate the new concepts and customs that will color my new college lexicon.

So, when it comes time to choose a roommate, I’m going to select “Random” on my request form – hopefully my Jewish Geography database will expand to include other peoples and countries too.


Avidan Halivni is currently a student at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa in Israel.

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