I get asked if I am a Jew a lot at Yale.
This is weird because I was always singled out in the very Jewish community where I grew up as “that Aryan kid.”
Here at Yale, though, I must give off “the Jewish vibe.” Sometimes those Orthodox guys who stand near Cross Campus will cross the street just to wish me a happy Shabbat and ask if I am Jewish. Other times, when I’m in a large group, I’ll be the only person in the group solicited by these Hasids.
I invariably tell them that no, I am not, in fact, Jewish.
I hate myself for lying, but there’s just too much pressure. I’m not embarrassed, self-hating or atheistic, I’m just overwhelmed.
There are so many damn Jewish groups on Yale’s campus. Here are just a few I can think of off the top of my head: Slifka, Hillel, Chabad, Maimonides Fellowship, Meor, Eliezer Society, the VAAD. Of course, like many students, I only know most of these from the plethora of table tents that these organizations plant in Commons.
What is a busy and confused young Jew like myself supposed to do with all of these choices? And it’s not like the different organizations have straightforward names: I didn’t know what Chabad meant before investigating (it turns out it is an English transliteration of a Hebrew acronym which translates to “Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge.”)
These groups cannot even be delineated by what type of Judaism they each represent. Of the three Jewish leaders with whom I spoke (Rabbi Shua Rosenstein of Chabad, Rabbi Mayer Behrend of Meor, and Steven Sitrin, the executive director of Slifka), they all said that their organizations were accepting of every type of Jew and did not necessarily cater specifically to any denomination.
Furthermore, it’s really hard to tell which organizations are associated with each other. For the record, here’s the breakdown: the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale is an umbrella organization for a ton of Jewish activities and clubs that have lesser-known names. It hosts many meals, and many types of Jewish study classes.
Hillel is a national organization whose Yale chapter is housed at Slifka. They describe themselves as “the center for Jewish life at Yale University,” which they swear is different than the actual Slifka Center for Jews at Yale.
Meor (which, according to its website, means “illumination”) is an organization that caters to Jews on college campuses. According to Sitrin, it is affiliated with Aish HaTorah, which is an Orthodox yeshiva (a house of study) and umbrella group. What I gathered from Behrend is that Meor began by hosting trips to Israel, and has slowly grown into a coordinating body for several different programs. These include the VAAD (a semester-long study program with regular classes), BAR (“Book A Rabbi,” through which you can arrange a free meeting with a rabbi), and Shabbat and holiday meals.
Behrend said the Maimonides Fellowship is affiliated with Meor. The relationship is a little hazy, but according to the program’s website, the group is a semester-long program with lectures, discussion and field trips.
Finally, Chabad is a national Orthodox organization that was brought to Yale in 2003. Although it also holds weekly classes, Rosenstein said the group’s primary focus is on its Friday night meals. He said the group attracts as many as 100 students to each of these dinners.
Of these four groups, each accepts all denominations of Judaism, and each serves meals, holds classes and promotes Jewish culture.
The groups are not actually as identiical as this jumble of interconnected and overlapping definitions would suggest.
There are variations in the ways the groups approach their programs, said Sitrin, and this makes all of the difference.
“[Every Jewish group at Yale] is doing the same thing we’re doing: trying to help people find a path,” he said, “but Chabad and Meor have their own way. That is not going to change.”
Slifka on the other hand, he said, offers many diverse options for Jews.
The narrow focus of the other programs is not necessarily a negative, said Rosenstein. He added that he believes the best part of Chabad to be the “intimate, warm and home-like” atmosphere that the group cultivates.
Rosenstein emphasized that Chabad is not a bunch of stereotypical Hasidic Jews (i.e., hats, long beards), but does have a specific way of doing things.
Almost every person I interviewed for this story told me that I should stop by their organization for either a meal or a class. I had no reason to say no; everything about the groups sounded good, and the distiniction between a pluralistic and a singular focus did not particularly sway me one way or another.
Plus, they all offered food.
Maybe that’s a Jewish thing. Or just a college kid thing. Or both.
Or, as Rosenstein said, “Students like food, and we serve very good food.”
That’s a genius plan, but they’ve got competition.
The Kosher Kitchen, which makes up the lower level of Slifka, serves three meals a day during the week and a kickass bagel brunch every other Sunday.
Yet despite their many similarities, there are conflicts between the groups.
Two members of the Yale community heavily involved in Jewish life on campus said that although Chabad and Meor have open door policies to all Jews, the groups often try to convert the students to their beliefs.
Sitrin did not go that far, but he said that all Jewish students are looking for a conception of their own Judaism, and those two groups “have [specific] answers for what that path is.”
He emphasized that this is not necessarily a bad thing, because this structured approach to religion may meet the needs of some students.
But in the end, with all of the complexities of differences and similarites, each student will have to see for him- or herself.