New Jewish Student Union a place for support and celebration

By Madison Pfeifer | December 3, 2018 1:21pm

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Jewish Student Union holds their first Shabbat dinner of the semester. The dinner included prayers in Hebrew and English as well as a blessing of the Challah, bread traditionally baked for Shabbat.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

With winter break approaching, some students are probably thinking about Christmas. They might be thinking about the story of Jesus’ birth, starting their advent calendars, or singing traditional Christmas carols in church, baking family recipes and putting up a Christmas tree.

But Christmas is not the only upcoming holiday. For the Jewish community at UP, the next holiday is not Christmas but Hanukkah, which takes place this year from Dec. 2 to Dec. 10. Jewish students are thinking about lighting a menorah, eating traditional foods such as latkes and celebrating their faith which they will do Dec. 3, in Franz 212 at 5:30 p.m. during their Hanukkah celebration. 

With the new addition of the Jewish Student Union (JSU) this semester, the Jewish community on campus can gather for a formal celebration of this ancient holiday, but also continue to gather throughout the year to support each other and share in their faith at a Catholic university.

Jewish Student Union holds their first Shabbat dinner of the semester. The dinner included prayers in Hebrew and English as well as a blessing of the Challah, bread traditionally baked for Shabbat.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

 According to sophomore Natasha Ma, president of JSU, UP has had a Jewish Student Union in the past, but it has not been a consistent club. Earlier this year, Campus Ministry reached out to Jewish students on campus and invited them to create a formal club.

Senior and member of JSU, Beronica Franklin, said that a coordinator for club activities at UP informed her and Ma that only about 20 people at UP register as being Jewish. Franklin said this could be because some students may be nervous to identify as Jewish at a Catholic university. Or she speculated that there really might only be 20 Jewish students on this campus.

The university provides public data of the percentage of incoming freshmen who are Catholic through their annual Common Data Set, but the data set does not include the number of students who are of different religions. Part of the UP admissions application does ask students to state their religious affiliation/spirituality.

“I have always felt a really deep connection to other young people that have the same faith as me,” freshman Mia Werner said. “I was really drawn to the idea of being able to have a club with other people like me on a Catholic campus.”

While the community may be small, JSU has given Jewish students at UP a place where they can come together and share in their faith. They do not meet every single week, but around once per month. When they do meet, members get to join together as a community and express their common faith, which members said is often a meaningful experience. Some non-Jewish students even attend JSU meetings to experience and learn more about this faith tradition.

When the club meets, they often participate in Shabbat which is the Jewish celebration of the Sabbath or day of rest, which begins Friday at sundown and ends at sundown Saturday. Most Jewish people go to their synagogue to celebrate Shabbat, but students in JSU are finding ways to celebrate this here on campus. 

Jewish Student Union holds their first Shabbat dinner of the semester. The dinner included prayers in Hebrew and English as well as a blessing of the Challah, bread traditionally baked for Shabbat.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

When they meet on Fridays, the group goes through the common rituals of Shabbat. They light candles, gather in a circle, pray and sing in Hebrew, and break bread together. 

“Everyone felt like we were missing something when we came here,” Ma said. “When we started making the club and actually got together for a few meetings, we found something we didn’t think we would miss when we came to college. But you don’t have Shabbat every Friday and you’re just missing that Jewish aspect of your life.”

Jewish Student Union provides these students with more than just a place to celebrate Shabbat. It gave these students a support system in wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pennsylvania that resulted in one of the deadliest attacks on the Jewish community in the United States and the deaths of 11 synagogue members.   

Werner said that she immediately started crying when she woke up and saw the news alert on her phone the day of the shooting. “It’s (anti-semitism) still here, it’s still alive and well,” she said. “Ask pretty much any Jew and they will tell you they have had some sort of experience with somebody saying something hateful.”

Jewish Student Union holds their first Shabbat dinner of the semester. The dinner included prayers in Hebrew and English as well as a blessing of the Challah, bread traditionally baked for Shabbat.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Werner believes that the shooting in Pittsburgh proves that antisemitism is still prevalent today, but the UP community and JSU members have helped her and others find support in light of this tragedy. 

“We express our sympathy and solidarity with our Jewish friends and colleagues who are within our own community and pledge our support for them,” President Fr. Mark Poorman said in an email to the UP community addressing the shooting. He went on to invite students to a Mass that was held in honor of those who lost their lives in the shooting.

“I definitely wish that we had done a little bit more,” Werner said. “I wish there would have been a place I could have gone and lit a candle but other than that, the email we all got was really nice and the mass was really beautiful.”

Werner and Ma both feel like UP has been supportive of them and their community since the shooting. They also said they feel welcome and included here even though the initial transition was a little difficult as UP is a Catholic university with a pretty small amount of Jewish students. 

“Since it’s a small, private, Catholic university, I don’t expect there to be too many people who identify as being Jewish,” Franklin said. “But it’s really nice that they offer the possibility to have clubs and to meet people to do Shabbat.”

Jewish Student Union holds their first Shabbat dinner of the semester. The dinner included prayers in Hebrew and English as well as a blessing of the Challah, bread traditionally baked for Shabbat.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Members of JSU have enjoyed being able to come together as a community and celebrate their faith, but they also highly encourage all students, no matter what their faith background is, to come to JSU meetings if they have questions or want to learn more about Judaism.

“Especially on a college campus where we’re all learning and growing anyway, be curious, ask your friends, ask around,” Werner said. “We’re around, we’ll answer your questions. Our doors are always open...Just be accepting and loving of your neighbor and we’ll do the same and we encourage you to mix in with our community as we mix in with yours.”

Madison Pfeifer is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at pfeifer21@up.edu. 

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