The Struggle for Religious Identity:
When Jewish Students Attend Catholic Schools
By Julie Ruditzky
A bright orange-yellow light glows in the darkness. The faint scent of a freshly lit match lingers in the air. Everyone can see the burning flames through the window. The gold-plated Menorah sits proudly on the center of the windowsill offering its glow to Manhattan's West Side. It is the third night of Hanukkah, the "Festival of Lights" which celebrates the ancient Jewish State's victory over the oppressive Greeks. On this night, the Jewish student organization at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus is conducting its own observance and celebration. Founder and president of the organization David Martell hopes the menorah reminds students, at the predominantly Catholic University, that Jewish students do exist.
David is one of the students who organized this year's Hanukkah party. In the midst of the holiday season, David did not want Hanukkah to be overshadowed. The party offered a plethora of food, music, and festive atmosphere, providing a slice of Jewish culture to the Fordham community.
It felt like I was back in Hebrew school again. Adam Sandler's Hanukkah song blares in the background while a group of students-both Jewish and non-Jewish-play a friendly game of dreidle. Happy Hanukah signs are speckled throughout the party room. A buffet table displays a wide selection of distinctly Jewish foods. I piled my plate high with piping hot potato knishes complete with applesauce, marble chocolate halavah, kosher pickles (not to mention a few pieces of turkey on rye bread with a little bit of Hebrew National's deli mustard). After each gulp, I took a giant sip of Dr. Brown's black cherry soda. I felt like it was the Sabbath and I was enjoying a Shabbat meal. As the party dies down, and only a few potato latkes are left, David passes out a round of Hanukkah gelt (chocolate wrapped in gold foil to look like coins)- a delicious contributor of the festivities at hand.
I glanced over to see David take a sigh of relief. His Hanukkah party was a success.
"Its comforting to have people around you that share your background," says David, a senior at Fordham who knew that I was a Jewish student also attending Fordham. When I first told David I was doing this story he was like "Wow, what a great idea." I asked David if I could talk to him about his religious experience at Fordham and he was delighted to offer some insight. I sat with David in the living room of his apartment-style dorm room, set down my tape recorder and pulled out a yellow-legal pad and pen. After putting some leftover knishes in the refrigerator for his hungry roommates, David then plopped himself down on the couch to relax.
As I glanced around the room, I noticed the usual college-style d?cor: beer posters on the wall, the latest copy of the Village Voice on the dining table, a bookshelf packed with last semester's textbooks. But not everything was "usual". Looking closer I noticed that to the right of David sits a petite Christmas tree ornately decorated with red, blue, and white trails of lights. To the left, amid an array of green houseplants, hides a menorah- the symbol of the Hanukah celebration. It looks a little worn and old but David feels the need to have it anyway. All of David's other roommates are Catholic. Before creating the Jewish Student Organization, David says he had difficulty relating to other students- especially over the holidays. Each Christmas decoration is yet another reminder to David that he Jewish.
David says he was never very religious but since coming to Fordham, his religious curiosity has grown. "It fuels an interest," says David, "coming to Fordham forced me to face my own Jewish identity."
Like many other students, David was captured by the intense energy of New York City. It was the school's location (in the heart of Lincoln center) and its strong academic reputation that led him to choose Fordham. Religion was not on his mind nor was it a priority. New York City's Jesuit University did not intimidate David -he just wanted his diploma.
David says he is open-minded to other religious lifestyles. He grew up in a small religiously mixed town in Pennsylvania. David describes his parents as "liberal." He says they are also very understanding, having no problem with David's choice to attend Fordham.
David, who is a part of a Reform Jewish family, was less interested in tradition and more interested in the culture. During his teenage years, he went through a time where he was not active at all with Judaism. He may have lit the Hanukkah candles every year but that was the extent of his Judaism. So how does a student go from being non-observant to president and founder of a Jewish student organization? David says once he got to Fordham he recognized his isolation-as a unique and different stranger in a well established majority and perhaps as an isolated individual from his own self; indeed his own identity.
David became frustrated with not having any other Jewish students with whom to associate. His frustrations led him to search for other resources-even those at other Universities. He says he often would go to Columbia University and New York University's Bronfman Center for Jewish life to interact with other Jewish students.
Realizing he no longer wanted to visit other schools to find Jewish life, he decided to form his own organization. "I wanted to foster the kind of place I would've liked as a freshman." He felt it was a great opportunity- "unconquered territory" as David calls it.
"One of the reasons David gave for starting the organization is that he just felt the Jewish presence wasn't visible," says the organization's Advisor Else Stern. "The idea (of the organization) is to provide Jewish students a way to get together and a way to educate the larger Fordham community (about Jewish presence)."
Last year, the Fordham University's United Student Government approved the organization.
One member of the club told me that last year, due to David and his organization, a menorah was placed in the lobby of Lincoln Center for the first time.
FEEL LIKE THE ONLY ONES
Erika Selkowe quickly realized that while at Fordham she would not find many other students with whom to share the kindling of the menorah candles. Just listening to her sporadic comments gave me the distinct impression of isolation and loneliness:
"I met one other Jewish kid here and saw a Jewish professor and that was about it."
"I felt like the only Jewish kid here."
Erika, now a senior at Fordham's Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, says she does not mind being at a Catholic school (she says she is getting a good education) but it is a far different environment from the one Erika was used to. Erika had previously attended private schools including a Jewish school in East Meadow, Brooklyn - a stone's throw away from the largely hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park.
In the Hasidic community, Yiddish is widely spoken and Hebrew words grace the front windows of every deli. The aroma of fresh baked Challah bread and potato knishes fill the air. In this distinctly Jewish community, Hasidic Jews walk proudly down the street wearing yarmulkes and showing "tzitzit" peeking out from under their shirts (tzitzit is the cotton fringes from the ritual garment called "tallit katan," a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people of the Ten Commandments; tzitzit are worn daily).
Now, instead of mezuzahs affixed to doorposts as a reminder of God's presence, Erika sees crucifixes - also a religious reminder but of a different heritage.
Fordham University's campus offers no resemblance to the Jewish neighborhoods near Erika's home. At Fordham, Erika now hears the ringing of church bells instead of the chanting of Jewish prayers. On the way to class Erika sees priests, not rabbis. Fordham does however represent the cross culture that is America, different cultures and faiths- but within a singular majority.
The transition to a Catholic school can be extremely hard on students who are unfamiliar with Catholic culture. "It's helpful if Jewish students don't feel they stand alone," Marilyn Gottlieb Director of Development for Long Island's Anti-Defamation League ( ADL ) says.
Since there are no Jewish organizations at Fordham's Rose Hill campus, Erika is unable to easily form a network of Jewish friends. Erika is one of 74 Jewish students at Fordham. But she says she only knows one or two other Jews on campus. It is a small number (only 1.4 percent of the student body). This statistic prompts Robert Grossman, Director of Hillel to remark that schools like Fordham, with small Jewish populations, are in most need of support groups. He says support groups for schools with few Jews is the reason Hillel was formed.
Grossman's organization, Hillel, is the largest of its kind in the world. It helps students initiate activities ranging from social, educational to religious programming. It is a resource for Jewish College students and a foundation of the campus Jewish community.
ASKING A TOUGH QUESTION
The question many ask is why go to a Catholic school if you are Jewish?
"Its something Jewish students have to consider before attending a non-denominational school," says Marilyn Gottlieb.
Jonathan Schienberg, a senior at Syracuse University says he knew a Catholic college would not be conducive to his Jewish lifestyle. He never considered attending a Catholic University.
"Even if I went to Boston College (a Catholic University) I would've felt uncomfortable. It doesn't promote a lot of my interests as far as Jewish identity." At Syracuse, Jonathan is able to be very active in Syracuse's Jewish organizations- an active member of Syracuse's Hillel chapter and AIPAC, a lobby group for Israeli rights. Syracuse also has a large Jewish population-about 20 percent.
Robert Grossman says it is important for Jewish students to go to a college where they will feel comfortable.
"We are not going to discourage Jewish students from attending a Catholic school. You can have a great experience but it is important to seek out Jewish resources."
Often, students find the religion factor takes a back seat in choosing a school. Academic reputation and location become higher priorities.
In many situations, the parents of the Jewish students, especially those parents who were first generation American born, express more reservation and concern than their children. This may be due to their own experiences growing up amidst the challenges of assimilation into society and their need to maintain their own heritage and culture.
Many college-prone high school students are unsure of the significance of a religious affiliated college on their Jewish identity. There is a program called "FACETS" designed to get their kids and parents thinking about the challenges and importance of being Jewish in college.
Anti-Semitism is no secret in New York. It leads the nation in anti-Semitic incidents. Jews are the No. 1 target on Long Island, according to an annual ADL audit. Maybe universities in New York should take on more responsibility in creating awareness about other religions. At Fordham it is the student's job to form organizations, no the university's. Possibly, schools like Fordham should do more to offer activities for Jewish students. Fordham University does require that students take two theology courses. The first course, taken freshman year, usually incorporates the five main religions, allowing students to get a perspective of different religions and cultures but
Other Universities and online degree programs have recognized the need for Jewish resources. At St. John's University the Jewish Organization of Cultural Students unites Jewish students with cultural, religious and traditional events. Boston College has a Hillel program.
Love Thy Neighbor
"It's the Catholic tradition to love thy Neighbor no matter what but why should some schools, like Fordham, fail to provide students of other faiths adequate resources?" asks Fordham University junior Heather O'Rourke.
from the March 2000 High holiday Edition of the Jewish Magazine