The Phillipian | Religion

Open to All

The first installment in a three part series about religion at Andover. A window into Judaism on campus.

By Cedric Elkouh

Open to All

The first installment in a three part series about religion at Andover. A window into Judaism on campus.

By Cedric Elkouh

WALKING into Paul’s Room in Paresky Commons each Friday evening for Shabbat—the Jewish Sabbath—is temporarily stepping away from campus life to enter the religious atmosphere cultivated by Andover’s Jewish Student Union (JSU). Students sing songs, eat food, and talk about Jewish culture on campus and abroad.

The Jewish Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. Jews around the world light candles on Friday evening and drink wine — JSU members drink grape juice — for a blessing and as a symbol of their joy and celebration. And Challah, a braided bread, is traditionally eaten following a short prayer thanking God.

Leah Adelman ’17, one of the JSU Co-heads, finds comfort in the familiarity of the weekly meetings.

“I think the important role [JSU] serves is the fact that we’re all away from home and this is something that very much feels like home because these are the traditions that we’ve practiced in our homes,” said Adelman.

“Judaism plays a different role in everyone’s lives,” she continued. “For me, it’s a lot about tradition, about my heritage … when I’m coming [to JSU] on Friday nights, that’s a moment for me to gather with people who I probably haven’t been sitting with all week … and you do three prayers, and those three prayers are the same three prayers that my family’s doing back in New York City on the same exact night. And so that’s kind of a special thing, to feel that we’re doing that at the same time, and Jews all over the world are doing that on that same night.”

Louis Aaron ’18, Lieutenant and Director of Communications for JSU, has been involved in JSU since he entered Andover as a new Lower.

“I practice, in general, through the Jewish Student Union. Every Friday night, we meet for Shabbat ... and, similar to how most of us did growing up with our families, we light candles, have some grape juice, and challah bread and say the prayers over those three things, and then we just chat and hang out, enjoy Shabbat together,” said Aaron.

Cedric Elkouh/The PhillipianAdelman is one of two JSU Co-heads.
Cedric Elkouh/The Phillipian.Aaron is Lieutenant and Director of Communications for JSU

Various levels of devotion to rules and customs of Judaism make it hard for JSU services and activities to align with those that students partake in at home.

Herbie Rimerman ’17, a JSU Co-head from Stamford, Conn., attends an Orthodox synagogue at home. He believes Andover’s Jewish community is vastly different from the one he belongs to away from campus.

“What doesn’t change? Here, the community is mostly kids! At home, the community is mostly adults,” said Rimerman. “I go to an Orthodox synagogue where nobody drives on Saturdays or uses phones; everybody walks and nobody works; and you go to people’s houses for lunch. There is not a single thing I can think of that’s the same [at Andover] other than lighting candles, drinking the grape juice, and eating bread. That’s it.”

Not all Jewish students at Andover participate in JSU. Six percent of the 923 students who responded to The Phillipian’s 2016 State of the Academy (SOTA) survey identified as Jewish, but JSU only has an attendance ranging from three dedicated members to about twenty people. The club is still open and welcoming to everyone: Jews, members of other religions, and even those who do not belong to any particular faith group.

Julian Colvin ’19 is a non-Jewish member of JSU who, prior to attending Andover, developed an interest in Judaism. But attending JSU was still an eye-opening experience for him; he was unaware of much of the nuance surrounding the faith.

“I actually have family that is Jewish, and I have studied Judaism. So, I think I had a pretty good grasp on it before, but I didn’t know as much about the cultural aspects as much as the religious aspects. Coming [to JSU at Andover] helped me understand what it means to be Jewish beyond just belief, what it means to be part of the Jewish community, and the cultural aspects, of singing, those things,” said Colvin.

EVEN with thriving religious communities, like JSU, scattered across campus, the majority of Andover students do not believe the school engages in enough discussions about religion, according to the SOTA survey. 54 percent of participants responded that religion was among the three least-discussed facets of identity at Andover, besides ability and socioeconomic status.

Rabbi Michael Swarttz, the Jewish Chaplain on campus, frequently attends JSU meetings and events. According to him, while there is room for improvement, Andover is still doing many things right when it comes to being open to religious differences and facilitating discussions about faith.

“We could try to create opportunities and structures for people to have dialogue and discussion about religion, religious practice, religious identity. I think we’re already doing a lot,” said Swarttz.

Students in JSU are certainly receptive to Swarttz’s efforts to create these “structures,” appreciative of the time he dedicates to the Jewish chaplaincy at Andover. He often engages them in in-depth conversations covering a swath of JSU and Jewish-related tophotos.

“Leah and I speak with him all the time, and he helps us make important decisions, he provides resources that we need, and he is basically our liazon to the institution, to the administration. Honestly, I don’t think we would be able to function as a club without him,” said Rimerman.

Rimerman hopes that JSU exists not just as a place for people to explore Jewish culture and observe Jewish holidays, but also as a way of educating students of varying backgrounds about Judaism and the Jewish tradition.

“At Andover, it’s the fulfilment of leadership [that makes practicing Judaism most rewarding]. I love being able to help people connect to Judaism, whether they are Jewish or not, and to teach people and to help them understand even just a little bit of the history and tradition and culture and the nationhood that exists within Judaism,” said Rimerman.

And Swarttz, in addition to facilitating discussions about religion and the complex issues surrounding it, is a strong proponent of more students pursuing a diverse mix of religious offerings and discussions, along with those offered through JSU.

“One of the things I like about the atmosphere here at Andover is that we have a lot of non-Jewish students who come to Jewish events, to JSU events. They come with their friends, or they come because they’re curious. And I know that some of our Jewish students also go to other religious events to support their friends or out of curiosity,” said Swarttz.

Yet, some students feel that because they do not practice Judaism, JSU and other Jewish activities are not for them. In spite of the nuanced definition of Jewish identity, Jewish services are still open to all people. Colvin admitted that, at first, he didn’t believe he had a place partaking in traditional Jewish activities and culture.

“I kind of came into it with this idea that if you weren’t born Jewish, then you’re not really invited. But then, spending time with my Jewish friends and coming to JSU, I’ve realized that Judaism is really open to other people, and they’re interested in having people of other faith traditions be involved,” said Colvin.

Swarttz agreed that exploring the practices of other religions provides invaluable lessons.

“You don’t find that that much out there in the real world, so I think that just by having that mix and interaction, it already lends itself to good discussions and questions and sharing,” he said.

“This school has done a lot to create an atmosphere of respect for differences and religion is one of those areas,” continued Swarttz.

“Out there in the real world, you often find that people are attacked because they’re different—different in their belief or different in their religious observance—and here we’ve created an atmosphere where people can talk and dialogue and observe people in their religious environments in a way that is respectful. I think that that’s very important; it’s something that people out there could learn from what we do here.”

“For us to have a Jewish chaplain, and to have spaces to gather together, and to have a community that accepts us is just really a gift,” added Adelman.

AT Andover, there are struggles unique to Jewish students, most of which are a result of the academic calendar interfering with the Jewish holiday calendar. Some of these issues can be resolved with the school taking action, but others are inherently part of being Jewish at Andover and the world.

“You fall behind on work, and you catch up. That’s just part of being Jewish in America; you have to miss school sometimes because we are a small portion of the population … if the rest of the school wants to continue on, we can’t stop them,” said Adelman.

“I think every minority has it’s own challenges that it has to deal with, and if mine is catching up from missing a day of school work that’s fine, and it’s probably a good skill to be able to have. We don’t get school off for Passover, which is a pretty important holiday,” added Aaron.

Consequently, some Jewish students, including Aaron, travel home to spend Passover with their families anyway. Simply shifting the Jewish holidays the school observes is a simple step the administration could take to resolve this issue.

“They could … transfer the days that we have off because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are actually not the most important Jewish holidays,” said Rimerman. “The most important Jewish holiday happens in spring. It’s called Passover, and that is the most important holiday and we don’t have days off for that. If we’re going to pick and choose the days that we have off, I would say that those are the most important ones to do.”

And just as there are various sects and orders of many other major religions, there are several denominations of Judaism. Rimerman identifies as “practically Orthodox but ethically Conservative.” The hectic Andover schedule often makes it near-impossible for him to practice Judaism as he was raised to.

“By practically Orthodox, I mean [on Saturdays] when I’m home, I don’t use my phone, I don’t use electricity, I don’t write things, I don’t cut things, I try not to drive … I am the only one [among students at Andover]; that does make it really difficult. And I’m not going to lie, I’m not able to be Orthodox on campus. It’s not logistically feasible given the workload — sometimes I have class requirements that I have to go to a specific event on a Saturday,” said Rimerman.

Many Jewish holidays also have dietary restrictions. The school is typically accommodating with the options it provides, and meals are appropriately marked for easy access.

“On Passover there are a lot of restrictions regarding food … and the staff here at Paresky is very supportive in providing what they call a ‘Passover-friendly station’ at every meal so that students who want to observe the traditions of what you can eat and what you can’t eat have a station where they know that they can get food; and matzo, unleavened bread is available at every meal,” said Swarttz.

But Rimerman hopes that Andover will provide fully-Kosher options for students with stricter dietary needs.

“We don’t have anything here that’s Kosher. There are a couple of rules and laws that are a little bit confusing, but, long story short, no food here is Kosher, so I kind of have to make do with what I’ve got. And that’s true for a lot of kids here, including Louis and some others,” he said.

DESPITE the vibrant community surrounding campus groups like JSU, Judaism is still a small minority at Andover. There are occasional instances involving ignorance of Jewish customs across campus, but members of JSU generally attribute these to a lack of awareness—not prejudice or disrespect.

“I think for the most part, people who aren’t Jewish on campus and aren’t exposed to JSU in any way aren’t really aware of it,” said Adelman. “And I think that’s kind of natural; it’s something maybe you’re not interested in or not connected to and you maybe just don’t know about it.”

Judaism and Jewish identity do not rest solely on belief, or lack thereof. Many different characteristics combine to form a broad spectrum of Jewish identities.

“Being Jewish isn’t only about religion,” said Swarttz. “Being Jewish is about belonging to a community, being part of the Jewish people … having common bonds and a common history and a common destiny with the other Jews around the world. So, it’s a peoplehood, ethnicity, identity, cultural identity, and religion all wrapped into one in a way, I think, that most other religions are not, as far as I understand them … people can plug into different aspects of being Jewish; all of them or some of them, depending on what they’re preferences are, and what they’re orientation is.”

And even though Andover appears it is typically accepting of many differences, the lack of education and discussion surrounding religion has sometimes led students to make inadvertently offensive comments to religious students.

“I’ve run into a little bit of anti semitism here. Not enough that I’m scared on campus but enough that it makes me sad,” said Rimerman.

“It does more than just rub me the wrong way,” he continued. “I’ve run into people who’ve told me that keeping Kosher is stupid before asking about what the rules are; I’ve run into people who don’t seem to understand the way I view certain things about, say, working on Saturdays or interpersonal relationships, and they seem to place value judgments rather than try to understand things from my perspective. And that makes me sad because it shows not just an ideological divide but one that people seem to be unwilling to bridge.”

Some of this, he says, can be attributed to Andover’s inherently secular nature, but overt disrespect is demonstrated by only a small group of people.

“I think the campus as a whole views [Judaism] as something of an oddity … people of religion tend to be viewed in a slightly bemused, slightly anthropological light because most of the campus seems to be secular. I think there is respect among most students and almost all faculty, but there are some people who look down a little bit on, not just Jews in particular, but most religious people,” he said.

IN addition to weekly meetings, JSU members organize several events throughout the year for speakers and holidays. Prior to Winter break, JSU organized a Hanukkah party, its largest annual event. More than twenty Jewish and non-Jewish students filtered through the room to play dreidel and learn about Jewish culture. Events like these increase interest in JSU activities, but they require planning and preparation.

“For [the JSU-sponsored Hanukkah party] it’s really not easy to get this many kids, and it’s something we’re really proud of and we worked really hard to try to recruit people over the years,” said Adelman.