Campus Life for Jewish Women

An insider's guide

There have been enormous changes on college campuses recently: a proliferation of Judaic and women’s studies departments, but at the same time, an increase in bigotry and incidents of harassment against minority groups and women. Because LILITH Magazine wanted to be able to tell the good news, as well as the bad, we sent our Student Editor Michelle Missaghieh (U of Michigan ’89) to talk to college students around the country about what life is really like for Jewish women on campus. She rounded up responses from 18 colleges and universities — including one in Israel.

What is the political scene and the social scene like for Jewish women students? Has the increase in Jewish studies courses been significant in changing the atmosphere for those students? In particular we wanted to be able to tell you whether or not Jewish women have organized themselves to combat negative stereotypes. (LILITH first exploded the problem of “JAP”-baiting on college campuses in the Fall 1987 issue.) While most Judaic studies departments are not feminist in orientation, there are quite a few Jewish feminist scholars on campuses who serve as role models, among them Paula Hyman (Yale), Judith Hauptman (Jewish Theological Seminary), Ellen Umansky (Emory), Martha Ackelsberg (Smith), Marcia Falk (Stanford University), Rela Geffen Monson (Gratz College), Susannah Heschel (Southern Methodist University) and Nechama Leibowitz (Hebrew University), to name a few.

Michele found that women on college campuses around the country seem to be active in Jewish organizations and play important roles in leadership positions; a number of Jewish feminist groups and prayer groups are forming, in addition to egalitarian rninyanim where women lead services. Jewish women are also in the forefront of many secular campus organizations, involved in all kinds of “non-traditional” academic work (such as engineering) and don’t feel daunted about moving into a wide range of careers.

The following reports don’t pretend to say everything that can be said about each campus as a whole. But taken together, the collegiate concerns we’ve listed on these pages give the overall Zeitgeist… what it feels like to be young, Jewish, American and female in college today. For a checklist of what to ask when you or students close to you are evaluating a college, take a look at p. 17.

Arizona State University, Tempe
by Debbie Kaplan

Arizona State University’s Hillel Student Union offers many religious, social and educational activities trying to reach as many Jewish students as possible; however, there are few Jewish students in this large campus of 43,000, and most are not involved in Jewish activities. High Holiday services and Purim parties draw as many as 300 students, but attendance at most other events is generally low.

While Rabbi Barton Lee is sensitive to women’s issues in Judaism, there are no activities geared specifically toward Jewish women. Yet Nina Torgovnik feels that “both women’s and men’s basic needs are being met through Hillel.” A new course on “Women’s Role in Modern Judaism” will test whether there is indeed a Jewish women’s community on campus waiting to be tapped.

George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
by Yael Flusberg

The perpetuation of the “JAP” stereotype is flourishing at George Washington University, In addition to “JAP”-busting parties and “Slap-a-JAP” t-shirts, there have been rocks thrown through the window of Zeta Beta Tau (the Jewish fraternity house), shaving cream on Jewish students’ doors and tomatoes thrown at Jewish students. While the new president of GW is Jewish, he has not yet done anything about the problem. Said one student, “The administration doesn’t think it’s a serious issue.”

Hillel has sponsored a few discussions on “‘JAP’-ism versus Judaism” without much impact — even professors still throw the term around in a joking manner. Non-Jewish students who’ve never met Jews seem to use the term as a code-word to describe Northeastern Jews. Jews themselves use this term to describe materialistic people, unaware of the negative connotations it has for Jews and women. Female students on campus are also teased that they are attending college solely to earn an “MRS” degree; this image is compounded by the belief that many Jewish women study in the medical and law school libraries only to meet men.

GW is, on the whole, politically and socially a conservative school, comprised primarily of middle and upper-middle class students. The campus Hillel has just completed a new building which many students feel will attract more Jewish students to become involved in Jewish activities. The new building now facilitates many programs, including Jewish classes, aerobics classes, classes on Jewish subjects and the only kosher deli in Washington, D.C.

Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
 by Michelle Lenke

The active Jewish community at Brandeis is proud of the college’s unique Jewish identity. About 60 percent of the university is Jewish, but the administration is now attempting to diversify the student population by appealing to minority and non-Jewish students through their appetites — pork and shellfish were recently introduced in the university cafeterias.

In addition to Hillel (where Rabbi Albert Axelrad has encouraged women’s involvement since the late 60’s), student groups focus on Ethiopian Jewry, Soviet Jews, the local elderly, Jewish arts, culture and more. Jewish women are involved in all aspects of campus life, including Artemis, a feminist literary magazine, and an eating disorders group. An escort service has been established for women walking alone at night. The women’s studies program just celebrated its tenth anniversary with a program featuring distinguished feminist alumnae, but few undergraduate women were involved.

Students at Brandeis do not feel they are using the term “JAP” as an expression of anti-Semitism; they claim they are describing a “certain type of person,” whether Jewish or not. This attitude toward the stereotype downplays its misogyny, but highlights the fact that “Brandeis is a very safe environment for Jews.” Feminists might want to note that Brandeis students consistently vote to keep fraternities and sororities off campus.

On any Friday night, one can choose to attend student-led services in reform, Orthodox, traditional conservative and egalitarian minyanim. The newly founded Women’s Minyan also meets monthly for Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) services.

The cooperation among Jews of all levels of observance is enhanced by The Unity Project, a group created to maintain dialogue among the University’s diverse range of Jews.

California State University, Northridge
by Lisa Kadmur

Cal State Northridge (CSUN), located in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles, has the largest undergraduate Jewish student population west of the Mississippi. Yet CSUN is a commuter school, which, explains Lori Hyman, vice-chair of Hillel, “makes it hard for Hillel to connect with the commuters.” According to Michelle Labgold, head of the Women’s Center, “Jewish women here tend to get involved with a wide range of secular activities on campus, but they are not proportionally represented in leadership positions.”

Jewish women are, however, involved in the Jewish organizations on campus; in Hillel, most of the present and past officers are female. Still, says Monica Rickler, the vice-chair of Hillel, “It’s surprising that with the number of women at Hillel, there shouldn’t be more programs specifically targeted for women.”

On the campus at large, Dr. Jody Myers, head of the Jewish Studies Department, feels that there is “support for feminist issues.” Yet, “Jews on campus are not strongly self-identified here as compared to, say Native Americans,” Dr. Myers feels. In general, “They’re not really visible specifically as Jews.”

Rothberg School for Overseas Studies Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel
 by Libby S. Adler

The Rothberg School is unique: most of the students are Jewish, come from all over the globe, and share an interest in Judaism or Israel. Classes and extracurricular opportunities reflect these interests. From singing in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof to canvassing national politics in the courtyard, women participate in the school’s activities.

In the same way that Jewish cliques form on North American campuses, here there are nationality cliques. Often language is a barrier to integration and so is religious observance. Politics also separates the student body. The vigor of campus activism seems at times to be a microcosm of Israeli society.

North American Jews are less grounded in Hebrew than other Diaspora Jews, and consequently feel less integrated into Hebrew University. There are also stereotypes such as “rude Israelis,” “rich Americans” and “noisy South Americans,” which present challenges.

Some opportunities to transcend these boundaries include living in the dorms with Israeli roommates, taking regular Hebrew University classes and participating in The Arab-Jewish Project (one of the few ways to interact with Palestinian students).

Specific programs and headquarters for women are lacking. Though a class on the changing role of women in Judaism is offered (and attracts women with a wide range of feminist consciousness and religious observance), more formal groups or trips for women would undoubtedly enrich the experience for many of us immigrating to or visiting Israel via the Rothberg School.

Emory University, Atlanta, GA
by Robin Solomon

People describe Emory University as half Northern and Jewish and half and half Southern and Baptist. There is a visible Black student population and race relations on campus appear to be virtually tension-free.

Relations between sexes, however, are on a less steady keel. One fraternity, Ki Phi, advertised their “Polathon” party to raise money for charity. Members sold t-shirts with a picture of a woman straddling a long pole. A coalition was formed to ban Ki Phi; the Emory administration stepped in and prohibited fraternity members from wearing the shirts on campus.

A coalition has also been formed to stop date rape. The administration has seemed slow in responding, however, to this problem.

Sororities and fraternities comprise the main social life on campus. Out of seven sororities, two are mainly Jewish, yet there doesn’t seem to be much prejudice or avoidance of them because they’re considered Jewish sororities. “JAP”-busting is still common — and Hillel has sponsored lectures on the subject.

Most Jews on campus are not active participants in Jewish organizations because, explains one student, “There are so many Jews on campus you don’t have to go to a Jewish group to meet other Jews. Chances are in the next room in your dorm is another Jew.”

Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
by Donna Greenberg

Northwestern University is a school that promotes an egalitarian, integrated ethic. There are no Jewish fraternities or sororities, and students of all religions and races are encouraged to fit in and socialize with everyone else.

Jewish students who choose only to date other Jews, for example, “have to justify themselves,” states Hillel Rabbi Michael Balinsky. “The norm is to date anyone.” Students agree that most Jews socialize with whomever they happen to like. “If you are dating someone who happens to be Jewish, you know your mother and grandmother will be happy,” says senior Vicki Goldman. “But you don’t necessarily look to date Jews.”

Since Jews make up about fifteen percent of the student body, they here have to go out of their way to meet and socialize with other Jews. Most students seem to prefer to conform to the egalitarian norm and blend in, rather than seek out one another. Jews are not as visible as they are on some East Coast campuses and the problems of “JAP”-baiting therefore seem less frequent. Jewish women are involved in a variety of activities, but there is no Jewish feminist movement. Hillel attempts to provide social events for students. “But at our Chanukah parties, we don’t try to duplicate frat parties,” says Rabbi Balinsky. “We have dreidels instead of kegs of beer.”

Queens College, City University of New York
by Michelle Abramson

Queens College is a commuter school. Many of its services (such as provisions for women’s health collectives) and groups (such as sororities), that would be much greater in size and number elsewhere, simply do not exist or are small at Queens.

At least 40 percent of the student body is Jewish. While many of the secular Jews appear unaffiliated with Jewish causes, the best-organized and “most obvious” Jews are the Orthodox or traditional.

There is no noticeable tension between Orthodox and non-Orthodox students. The non-Orthodox seem to have very little organization; many of them simply join in the “Orthodox”-sponsored activities, such as Israel Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jewish musical events, and lectures on subjects ranging from Jewish ethics to dating. As for the dating issue itself, one student, Lisa Goldenberg says, “I would only go out with Jewish — preferably religious — men, and Queens provides me with the selection I enjoy.”

Another student, Chaya Weiss, feels that too many Jewish students — whether secular or observant — are apathetic to Jewish causes and activities. Instead, “they focus on maintaining a good social life that revolves around the kosher cafeteria.”

Smith College, Northampton, MA
by Rebecca Stein

Smith, one of the few women-only colleges still in existence, is noted as a hotbed of feminism and has a long and distinguished history of graduating women leaders. Yet the level of ignorance about Judaism among the student body is quite high and can be rather alienating. This sentiment seems to be generated through ignorance and not bigotry.

The campus has been plagued by anti-Semitic incidents in the past — the Christmas “grinch award” was always presented to a Jewish woman — but the general feeling today is one of tolerance. In fact, the college has appointed an assistant dean to concentrate on attracting more Jewish students to the school.

The college does have a Jewish Studies department, although it consists of only one professor. The kosher kitchen is utilized by a very few students, and Rabbi Yechiael Lander serves as a part-time rabbi, spending the rest of his time at Amherst College.

The nearby towns of Amherst and Northampton boast a total of four colleges in addition to Smith — the “five-college consortium” includes Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and U. Mass-Amherst. Students can cross-register for courses at any of the five schools, and campus life for Jewish women feels different at each one.

At Mount Holyoke, the Jewish population is down to five percent though the college recently hired a woman rabbi to serve as an on-campus religious advisor. Amherst, with a Jewish population claimed to be 20 percent, nonetheless sees protests each December by Jewish students, faculty members and Hillel because the school erects a Christmas tree in the campus center in the name of all Amherst students.

A Jewish woman comments, “One thing I have learned since I’ve been at Amherst College is that one cannot equate intelligence with morality, tolerance or an understanding of diversity.”

State University of New York — Binghamton
by Beth Kanter

Only hours after about 50 students commemorated the 50th anniversary of Kristalnacht, swastikas and the words “Zionist Racists” and “Kill the Kikes” were sprawled in silver spray paint on SUNY-Binghamton’s Jewish Student Union’s lounge and sanctuary walls.

“This incident triggered a sentiment across campus that we need to combat anti-Semitism on a grass-roots level,” says Karen Mahn, Jewish Student Union treasurer.

After the vandalism, Jewish students, joined with the other campus minority groups such as the Black and Latin Student Unions, and organized two anti-discrimination rallies, each of which drew about 450 people. The first rally was followed by the showing of the documentary “Genocide” and an informal discussion during which one student said it was important not to condone slurs such as “cheap Jew,” “dumb Black,” “fag” and “JAP.”

On the feminist scene, the SUNY-Bin-ghamton Women’s Center sponsors events such as “Take Back the Night” marches and programs on date rape. But one student claimed that the center “caters to women who are ‘left’ of the norm of the female population on campus, those who don’t shave and hate men.”

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
by Susan Knoppow

While student members of the Ann Arbor Jewish Feminist Group feel they have created an environment to educate themselves about forming a positive Jewish identity (including celebrating Rosh Chodesh and sponsoring events), members of the Sigma Delta Tau Sorority House often refer to other Jewish women as “JAP’s.” The range of Jewish women’s experience reflects the diversity of the Jewish population in this campus of 35,000.

Hillel is the second-largest organization on campus, with its own theater company, film cooperative and different minyanim (prayer groups). If Jewish students want to become involved, chances are there is a special group to meet their interests. Hillel seems to have something for everyone, which prevents it from being perceived as a clique, but also results in a more fractured and less unified Jewish student community.

Despite Hillel outreach, however, one student Keren Lawner says, “I feel helpless at times because Jews on campus are passive about issues relating to Jews — such as current events in Israel.” Jewish women sometimes seemed faced with a double dilemma. They are interested in dealing with their Jewish identity, they are also curious about their feminist identity, but it is rare that they struggle to combine the two. There is much dialogue in both the women’s and Jewish communities. On campus there are programs dealing with date rape: special seminars, crisis hotlines and a sexual-assault prevention center.

A theater troupe, “Talk to Us,” performs interactive theater in psychodrama style across the campus and to community groups in an attempt to reduce prejudice. Several sketches focus on “JAP”-baiting.

University of California, Los Angeles
by Hali Helfgott

Item: A number of sororities at UCLA have Jewish “quotas” during rush; only three to five Jewish girls are allowed in per pledge class.

Item: A UCLA fraternity has an annual “World War Two” party where many members dress up as Nazi war criminals, swastikas and all.

These are just two examples of anti-Semitism within the Greek system of UCLA. Kathy Levin, a senior, describes her experience at a sorority during rush week: “When I walked through the door of a non-Jewish house I was introduced by one member to another as Kathy L-E-V-I-N. The girl repeated this obvious emphasis on my last name about three times. I was then escorted over to the Rubensteins and Goldsteins of that house.” Alpha Epsilon Phi — filled with energetic, intelligent and pretty girls — is rarely invited to socialize with “top” fraternities because it is considered the “Jewish sorority.”

Outside of the approximate 500 Jews in the Jewish sorority and two Jewish fraternities within the Greek system, there is a “definite lack of enthusiasm about being Jewish on campus,” says student Nancy Josephs. “There are probably over 6,000 Jews at UCLA and maybe 150 of them are involved in Jewish groups.” Another student, Sara Gollub, feels, “Students involved in Hillel/JSU at UCLA are either very religious or involved in Israel-related activities. There are many ‘closet’ Jews on campus who would rather ignore their Judaism than get involved in it.”

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
by Jenny Bayer

Jewish women are involved in every aspect of the community at Penn. They have taken on leadership positions in every level of Hillel, and are well-represented in the student government, the Undergraduate Assembly.

Hillel at Penn is one of the strongest most successful Hillel programs, and it is natural for women to find their place within such a community.

People feel comfortable at Penn Hillel: students identify with it and try to bring together their activism with their Judaism. Women lead the Soviet Jewry group, Jewish Social Action Groups and many aspects of the conservative minyan. Women have also taken the initiative to bring special programs to Penn concerning Jewish women, including speakers on “JAP”-baiting and women in Israel.

The only problem with all of this success is that a formal Jewish women’s group has yet to get off the ground. Everyone is over-extended both within the women’s community and outside it. Yet some people feel that an integration of both men and women within Hillel gives the Jewish community — in spiritual, political and social spheres — its strength and appeal.

University of Wisconsin, Madison
by Rachel Sabath

A long and well-remembered history of liberal and feminist activism are inherent elements of the character of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Activist involvement has and continues to include the Jewish community and especially Jewish women.

Of the campus’ 40,000 students, approximately ten percent are Jews who are involved in almost every aspect of campus life. Jewish women participate in the Ada James Campus Women’s Center, in the Greek system, as well as many co-ops, including the Jewish co-operative, Ofek Shalom. The leaders of many of the Jewish student organizations are overwhelmingly female. A Jewish feminist group has also been formed to celebrate holidays and deal with campus issues such as sexual harassment, Black-Jewish relations and “JAP”-baiting.

While there are many positive aspects of the involvement of Jewish women on campus, some women express concern that the occurrence of “JAP”-baiting shows “we have not yet done necessary work on Jewish identity.” Others observe that the heavy Jewish involvement in leftist — rather than Jewish — organizations shows that “activist leftist students deny their Judaism because of the negative stereotypes.”

Washington University, St. Louis, MO
by Julie Hofstein

To celebrate Rosh Chodesh, two students recently organized a service which brought together a wide range of Jewish women who discussed ways of integrating feminism with Judaism.

The Rosh Chodesh service is indicative of the growing awareness of feminist issues by Jewish women on the Washington campus. However, Pam Lieberman, one of the Rosh Chodesh organizers, feels that “Jewish feminist needs are not adequately met here.” Other students argue that “the majority of Jewish women couldn’t care less about Judaism — their only connection is through the Jewish sorority Alpha Epsilon Phi.”

Lisa Landsman, head of Hillel’s Jewish Women’s Group, has observed, however, that “an inordinate number of Jewish women are involved in feminist groups — such as the women’s resource center — on campus.” But most of the women are uncomfortable practicing Judaism because of the perceived secondary role women play. To help women harmonize their feminist and Jewish views, the Jewish Women’s Group organizes activities such as a women’s Talmud class. Still, says senior psychology major Rachel Cohen, “A lot of women who have had their consciousness raised about feminism seem to have negative feelings toward Judaism.”

Yale, New Haven, CT
by Jessie Bonn

Across the Yale campus, from groups as diverse as Yale Student Friends of Israel, the Yalesbians, and the Ulysses Grant Foundation for urban youth, Jewish women are leaders. They are also reporters, peer-counselors, fund-raisers, staff members at the battered women’s center and prayer leaders. Yet despite their strengths, Jewish women at Yale have no united voice.

Women’s Center activist Sarah Chinn attributes this lack of voice partially to a prevailing attitude that “feminism is passe.” Yet the Women’s Center, which promotes programs addressing a broad women’s community, has not sponsored any programs for or about Jewish women.

Some students point out that Yale has so many activities that compete for students’ time; some claim that an unspoken desire for unity partially explains the absence of special interest groups; still others claim that the low profile of Jewish women is a problem particular to the Jewish community — which they perceive to be scattered and unorganized. While this may reflect the preference of Jewish students to blend with the secular Christian mainstream, it is perpetuated by a practical problem: there is no Jewish students’ center. The Yale Jewish “underground” really does take place in the basement locations of the Hillel office, the kosher kitchen and the egalitarian minyan. This situation will continue for the next few years until the projected Hillel center is built.

The portion of the Jewish community which is organized is small. For example, the Yale Student Friends of Israel is the only group responsible for presenting all sides of Israeli political issues. Likewise, observant women who want to lead prayers attend the egalitarian service, rather than creating a separate women’s prayer group. The unspoken desire for unity partially explains the absence of more special interest groups.

While the new Hillel building cannot, in itself, create a Jewish woman’s consciousness, it will increase the size and diversity of the active Jewish community, which may bring together Jewish women.

What to ask about on campus:

1. Is there a women’s studies department? If not, is there a variety of courses about women? Do courses in literature, for example, also include female writers?

2. Is there a Jewish studies department and does it include women’s experiences in its curriculum? What are the popular Jewish courses on campus? Are there alternative classes for Jewish learning?

3. Are there Jewish women’s prayer groups or Jewish feminist groups?

4. Is there a women’s center that programs for Jewish women’s concerns? What other kinds of women’s activities take place on campus?

5. Does the students’ health center seem sympathetic to the needs of female students?

6. Do students go to the Hillel or does it seem marginal on campus? Are events student-initiated or initiated by faculty?

7. Does the campus administration seem concerned about issues of anti-Semitic bias on campus, especially “JAP”-baiting? Has the administration initiated programs to stop date-rape and sexual harassment on campus?

8. Are there female and Jewish role models among the faculty who are willing to act as advisors?