A freshman’s guide to navigating Jewish life on campus

Here’s everything you need to know
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It’s back to school season! If you’re a freshman (or maybe this is just your first year physically back on campus) here’s everything you need to know about Jewish life at college.

The basics:

You’ve just arrived at college, you may be in a new city, meeting all new people. Here are the places you can turn to for Jewish community

Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. They organize events and create spaces for Jewish students to connect with their identity and each other. Odds are there is a Hillel at your college- they have staff and offices at over 550 colleges and universities around the world. You can check out their college directory to find out more information about the Hillel on your campus. Hillel staff or volunteers will help get you connected to Jewish events and other students.

Chabad on Campus is home to religious Jewish life on campus. Most campuses have a Chabad house run by the campus rabbi, rebbetzin and their children. This can be another great spot to meet other Jewish students, attend weekly Shabbat dinners and attend all sorts of religious events.

These are the two main groups that live on the majority of campuses across North America (and often beyond). There may be other Jewish and Israel organizations on your campus, like Israel advocacy clubs, sororities and fraternities (yes, AEPi we’re looking at you.) Most campuses have a club directory where you can do a quick search for these types of clubs. Still, usually your best bet is to get connected with other Jewish students through Hillel, Chabad, or even the Jewish Federation in your city, and they’ll help connect you to all the relevant (campus-specific) spots, organizations and resources.

What to do about class on Jewish holidays?

Since college schedules work differently, it’s possible you may be scheduled for class on Friday nights, exams on Saturdays and there’s bound to be a conflict with holidays. 

This year, 15 out of the 30 days in September are Jewish holidays, so you’re going to have to ask your professors for some time off. The good news is, professors are usually pretty accommodating. Odds are they’ve taught a Jewish student before.

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Plus, public colleges and universities in the United States are legally mandated to make religious accommodations for students. The law states that public institutions cannot penalize you for asking for a religious holiday off, so that means your absence should be excused. Private schools do not have the same protections, but in most cases an email or conversation with your teacher or professor should be enough. 

If a problem should arise, you can reach out to your school’s Jewish life office for help. If your school does not have a Jewish life office (or a Hillel/Chabad house), a conversation with your school’s registrar’s office may be needed. Come prepared with a letter from a rabbi explaining the dates that you are taking off.

Other things to expect:

This question highly depends on your campus. However, on many campuses, it’s possible that you’ll be surrounded by a lot of people who are different from you — which is an amazing thing. 

However, it can also lead to some difficult conversations, says Michal Cohen, the Chief Marketing Officer of Jewish on Campus, a movement ​​of young Jewish people working against antisemitism on college campuses. 

Your new roommates or classmates may have never met a Jewish person before, she said, so you might get a few questions that seem strange or ignorant.

Many times, these questions have to do with Israel and Israeli/Palestinian politics. It’s never a Jewish person’s responsibility to educate their peers on these matters, but it can feel empowering when you’re able to respond in a thoughtful way instead of being caught off guard, Cohen explained.

“The best thing you can do is to educate yourself,” she noted. “It can be very empowering and very beneficial when dealing with these situations.”

Here at Unpacked, we have all sorts of resources like video series on all things Israel and Jewish. From Israeli-Palestinian Context or History of Israel to Antisemitism, explained, we’ve got you covered when it comes to unpacking all your Jewish questions. 

Plus, you can always reach out to us via Instagram, Tik Tok and Twitter (@JewishUnpacked) for any unanswered questions.

Good luck and happy studying!

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