Jewish life flourishes on Vanderbilt campus

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On a recent Monday morning, the halls of the Student Life Center at Vanderbilt University rang out with the sound of the Jewish community marking the end of Yom Kippur.

“We are Your people, your children, and You are the one who gave us life,” said more than 100 worshippers in unison before hearing the shofar blown.

Five years ago, students attended Yom Kippur services off campus with the help of Nashville’s Jewish community. This year was the first time Hillel was able to offer students services and meals throughout the Jewish High Holidays, and hundreds of students observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on campus.

“Our Hillel started without even having building, and now we have one and are using it to full capacity,” said Lindsey Wilczynski, a senior studying elementary education and theater. “A lot of factors have come together.”

Progress has come quickly on a number of fronts, as Vanderbilt’s administration and staff followed up on commitments made five years ago to make Jewish students feel more at home. Vanderbilt is now ranked in Reform Judaism magazine’s “Top 30 Private Schools Jews Choose.”

“We believe that a great university should have a great Hillel,” said Wayne L. Firestone, president of the national organization Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. “Around the world, Hillels are not only the center of the Jewish student community but a resource for the entire campus.

“Hillel at Vanderbilt is a case in point. Not only does Vanderbilt Hillel serve the growing Jewish population of the university, it also brings programs and student opportunities to campus that build students’ character and strengthen the university as a whole. Vanderbilt is a leading example of how a Jewish student community can grow and thrive in fertile ground.”

The first step to students’ hearts was through their stomachs. Since the Ben Schulman Center for Jewish Life opened in 2002, it’s been anchored by Grins (pronounced Greens), a Kosher vegetarian deli that’s been wildly successful with the student body and Nashville public.

In addition, starting this year Kosher dining on campus took a major step forward. A Kosher meal with meat is now served each Friday evening at the Schulman Center, a Kosher hot dog cart will soon open on campus and Mon Cuisine brand frozen Kosher dinners can be purchased on campus. The staff has expanded at the Schulman, which has led to more and better programming. The building itself has been rearranged, with separate areas devoted to Grins, a game room, a large lounge with a coffee house-like atmosphere, study areas and an auditorium used for programming and religious services.

Jewish population at Vanderbilt has increased from about 3 percent five years ago to 12 percent now. There are more than 850 Jewish undergraduates now enrolled, a level university officials expect to hold steady.

“On any university, having an active student cultural and religious life is a vital component to having a meaningful college experience,” said Ari Dubin, executive director of Vanderbilt Hillel. “Whether it’s Jewish, African American, Buddhist or whatever – it’s about creating opportunities to explore the multiple dimensions of their identity. The more students can learn about who they are and what it means, the better they are able to put it in the context of their life and the learning they’re doing in the classroom.”

Jay Geller, assistant professor of modern Jewish culture, has witnessed the evolution of Jewish life on campus and says the commitment to it at Vanderbilt “is real.” The Vanderbilt Hillel has a $2.4 million endowment funded earlier this year with help from a challenge grant from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore.

“In addition to the non-academic aspects, the administration has shown great support to the Jewish Studies program, which has grown even quicker than the initial commitment,” Geller said.

Course offerings in Jewish studies have increased dramatically, and students from many backgrounds enroll in courses like Radical Jews from Karl Marx to Norm Chomsky and Music and Identity in Jewish Traditions. Study Abroad options are being pursued, and the Certificate in Jewish Studies gives professional and graduate students access to Jewish Studies courses.

The Schulman Center is set opposite a row of fraternity and sorority houses on campus, across the street from Memorial Gymnasium.

“The location is at the center of campus, not tucked away in some obscure corner,” Geller said. “The administration gave it prime real estate, a clear sign that there was a serious fiscal and physical commitment to Jewish students.”

Dubin says that he continues fields calls from Jewish parents and students interested in Vanderbilt, but with some wariness about Jewish life on campus.

But the tide appears to be shifting.

“I can answer those questions and say with confidence that students can get Kosher food at Vanderbilt and we can meet their religious needs,” Dubin said. “I can also brag that the Nashville Jewish community is dedicated to the success of Jewish life on campus.”

“One of the things that I’ve been very pleased to see is how often one Jewish student enrolls here, goes home and gives a good report, leading to their brother or sister wanting to follow in their footsteps at Vanderbilt.

“The returning customer is your best advertisement – word of mouth.”

Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

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