The Conspiracy

Why Small Campus Jewish Communities Are the Best

The logo of Williams College Hillel, the Jewish Ephs.

When applying to colleges, I gave barely any thought to Jewish life on campus. This was not because I didn’t care about being engaged with a Jewish community; on the contrary, between leading my Temple Youth Group, attending regional NFTY events, working as a teaching assistant at a religious school, and moving up the ranks at a URJ camp, I was very attached to my various Reform Jewish commitments throughout high school, and wanted to continue this involvement in college. But having grown up in Pittsburgh, where you can walk down the main thoroughfare in Squirrel Hill and pass four shuls, a JCC, a yeshiva, and your friend’s Bubbe, it just never occurred to me that I might find myself in a place where I would actively have to seek out Jewish life. So unlike some of my friends at Williams College, for whom a strong Jewish presence on campus was a major factor in their college decisions, I had no idea that any one college might have a “better” Jewish community than another.

I was remarkably lucky. Williams is about 12% Jewish, compared to the 30-40% of some other, larger prestigious universities, and not so long ago it was a bastion of white, male, Christian privilege where traditional fraternities dominated the social culture. But despite these markers, it is, in my experience, absolutely wonderful being a Jewish student at Williams. Our Jewish organization is called Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA). Unlike most larger schools, we do not have a huge Hillel with multiple minyans. We are instead one pluralistic community with students who are Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, “Just Jewish,” secular, and all others who find Jewishness a comfortable fit for them all sitting at the same Shabbat table and attending the same High Holiday services. This, in a nutshell, is what I find so beautiful and so compelling about Jewish life at Williams. Pluralism is certainly not always easy, but it is so, so worth it. We argue over which hekshers, or kosher symbols, are acceptable in our splendid kosher kitchen; whether it is okay to use cell phones in the JRC on Saturdays; and what melody of Ahavat Olam to sing at Friday night services, but we come out of these arguments with our minds more open. Our pluralism works because we never cease our dedication to bettering the community that is our home (maybe we should call it a continuous process of tikkun WCJA). Though we are very different in practice and belief, it works because we all cherish our Jewishness as much as we cherish being part of a community where everyone else’s unique contributions are treasured.

I came to Williams a proud Reform Jew, but now, a little more than halfway through my time here, I am not sure how useful that categorization is for me. I have recently toyed with the term “Jewmanist,” in part just because I like words and it is fun to say. (I thought of it myself, yes, but it turns out that so did a lot of other progressive Jewish types.) I am grateful for my warm Reform upbringing, and that Movement’s openness to novelty, commitment to social justice, and tradition of song-leading and music. But nowadays, my weekly Shabbat practice is closer to that of the Conservative Movement, and in the Jewish Religious Center, I observe kashrut in a way that would please an Orthodox supervisor. I have found that focusing too much on these labels limits rather than strengthens the Jewish community that WCJA provides. A dear friend of mine once suggested that WCJA was “trans-denominational,” and I think that is an excellent way of characterizing it.

This is the closest I can come to describing why, oddly enough, attending a tiny liberal arts college in the Berkshire Mountains of northwest Massachusetts ended up being the best thing that has ever happened to my Jewish identity. WCJA is a very special place where I have experienced everything from a long conversation with a man who was born Protestant, did a full Orthodox Jewish conversion, and now runs the only kosher (and humane and free-range) farm in the Berkshires, to organizing a day trip to New York City to learn about American Jewish cultural history. Participating in the Jewish community at WCJA has broadened my understanding, experience, and love of Judaism.

Williams may not have more than a couple hundred Jewish students, and we may not have multiple different services suited to each person’s particular preference, but we have the vibrancy, friendship, and ruach to more than make up for it. I truly believe that every kind of Jew can find the Williams College Jewish community to be a comfortable home; I should know, because I now feel like a different kind of Jew every day.

 

Miranda Cooper is a student at Williams College.

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