News

Annual Report Finds Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Remains Largely White, Male

News

Harvard Square Celebrates Oktoberfest

News

Harvard Corporation Members Donated Big to Democrats in 2020 Elections

News

City Council Candidates Propose Strategies for Supporting Low-Income Residents at Virtual Forum

News

FAS Dean Gay Hopes to Update Affiliates on Ethnic Studies Search by Semester’s End

Harvard Is A `Home' For Jewish Students

Students Say Past Prejudice Is No Longer a Barrier

By Anna D. Wilde, Crimson Staff Writer

In the first half of the 20th century, Harvard maintained admissions quotas to keep the number of Jewish students low.

Today, one in four students at the College is Jewish. And several top University administrators are of Jewish descent--including Provost Jerry R. Green, who last week gave a talk on how lessons from the Judaic tradition of moral law could benefit the Harvard administration.

Despite the decades of institutional discrimination and more recent campus racial and religious tensions, Rabbi Sally Finestone says Jewish students now "feel at home at Harvard."

"I don't think Jews feel like guests at Harvard anymore," says Finestone, who is acting chair of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel. "I think they feel as much like what the typical Harvard student is."

Students interviewed last week agree with Finestone that Harvard today is a comfortable place to be Jewish.

"We live in a time when expressing oneself ethnically is much more acceptable," said Shai A. Held '94, chair of Hillel's steering committee. "You don't haveto be a white, Protestant man anymore."

Jewish life at Harvard, as on many collegecampuses, centers around the Hillel house.

"For me, a big part of being Jewish on campusis Hillel," says Pamela B. Kirschner '94, co-chairof Hillel's social action committee. "It's reallylike a home."

Some first-year students active in Hillel sayit serves as an initial welcome to the College andas a unifying force for the Jewish community.

"[Hillel members] were very helpful inadjusting," says Orit Sarfaton '96. "If thereweren't a Hillel it would be very difficult tocome together."

Students at Hillel come from a broad range ofreligious backgrounds. Despite this diversity ofcommunities, students say, Hillel seessurprisingly little conflict between Orthodox,Reform and Conservative Jews.

In fact, Finestone says, Hillel activelyencourages students to "find one's own identitywithin the spectrum of Jewish life and toexperiment with different ways to be Jewish atHarvard."

Though Hillel was once primarily a religioushaven for Jews observing kosher laws and attendingservices, the organization has increasingly becomea social and cultural center for the Jewishcommunity.

"It's definitely becoming much more social,"says Jenna L. Andelman '95, Hillel's annual eventscoordinator. "Four years ago, I heard it wasbasically a bunch of Orthodox people hanging out."

Regular Hillel diners--dinner is served sixdays a week and open to all students on the mealplan--do not fit any neat stereotypes, whether ofconcentration, of political interest, or ofgeographic origin. And dinner discussions,students say, are lively and varied.

"It's not the sort of place you walk in andfind people arguing over intricacies of Talmudiclaw," says Held.

But others say they see meals at Hillel as achance to step back from the bustling diversity ofHarvard's campus.

"The social opportunities of being able to hangout with people who are like me is a break frombeing with people who aren't like me," says JoshuaHeller '94. "[Hillel] offers a friendly,protective environment."

The reputedly better-than-dining-hall food alsoaccounts for Hillel's appeal: "That's the maindraw," says one recent dinnertime guest, whodeclined to give her name.

But Hillel has not always been the activecommunity students say it is today. Theorganization was once housed at a distant locationnear the Divinity School, which Finestone sayskept its membership small.

Its present location at 74 Mt. Auburn St. and adeliberate campaign to foster a more inclusiveimage have increased student participationsignificantly.

"I think since the '80s that Jewish studentshave been more cohesive," says Finestone. "Thestructure and location of the Hillel has made thateasier."

In the past, students say, there was awidespread perception that Hillel regulars werecliquishness toward outsiders.

According to Held, the organization's leadersare currently engaged in programs to try to reachthe 80 percent of the College's Jewish studentswho do not participate in Hillel activities.

Held points to cultural and social programslike discussion groups, Israeli dancing, andSunday morning bagel brunches as draws for Jewishstudents interested in exploring non-religiousaspects of their heritage.

Although the situation is improving, somestudents say, the cliquishness is not entirelygone.

"Hillel is a really hard place to go alone,"says Stephanie Stein '94.

Richard Abrahmson '94 says he thinks manyJewish students see Hillel as "a very cliquishcommunity," but notes that "in reality, there areJews from all kinds of backgrounds."

Similarly, while Heller says that "it'scertainly possible to hide out in Hillel," hethinks the number of students who do so is small.Finestone estimates that approximately one-thirdof students active in Hillel use it as "analternative to Harvard life."

But for the majority of Hillel regulars, theorganization is "a supplement to their life atHarvard and not a barrier to it," she says.

The sense of a limited social pool is onereason a number of Jewish students say they do notspend much time in the Hillel building.

"I have a lot of non-Jewish friends, and I likespending my time with them," says Alison L. Ralph'93. "They don't necessarily feel comfortablethere."

Although the fear of isolation is not shared byall students, Ralph's pattern of visiting Hillelon an occasional basis is a typical one for Jewishstudents.

No one organization can encompass all ofHarvard's 1,600-person Jewish population, andFinestone estimates that in a typical week onlyabout 19 to 21 percent of Harvard's Jewishpopulation visits the building.

And if there is such a thing as the "Jewishexperience" at Harvard, students say it is toovaried and diverse to be encapsulated in anexamination of just Hillel.

Religious observances such as such as koshereating laws, Sabbath practices and Jewish holidaysare a defining element for some, simply because ofhow such restrictions affect everyday and sociallife.

Restrictions for observant Jews include a banon any form of work on the Sabbath, including anyuse of machines, as well as kosher dietarystrictures.

Others point to Judaism's unique nature as botha religion and an ethnicity as a difference fromother creeds and minority groups.

This dichotomy has led to some tension betweenHillel and the Harvard Foundation, which has nopermanent student representation for the Jewishcommunity.

"Jews are a religious group but not just areligious group, an ethnic group but not just anethnic group," says Held, who has in the pastpushed for a Hillel seat on the Foundation'sstudent board.

Many students say they can pinpoint nothingspecific as a uniquely "Jewish" part of being aHarvard student. Some say they do have a feelingof being a minority, and a few say they feel ananti-Jewish bias in certain social settings.

"You feel like you're in the minority a lot ofthe time," says Laurence J. Kanner '94.

This perceived prejudice is not reflective ofthe campus as a whole, students say, but a fewhave seen isolated incidents of insensitivity.

"I've experienced some comments," said onestudent, who asked that her name not be used. Shesays she has heard expressions linking Jewishnessand parsimony in her house dining hall.

The College could also do more to make Harvarda comfortably non-sectarian place, some studentssay.

A number complained of classes held on Jewishholidays, which was a problem for many studentsthis year. And the new electronic key cards issuedto first-year students have created difficultiesfor observant Jewish students trying to return totheir dorms on Friday nights.

Last spring, Hillel and the Foundation becameembroiled in controversy amidst allegations thatcomments Foundation Director S. Allen Counter hadmade about an article in The Crimson wereanti-Semitic.

"A great deal of damage was done by thatletter," says Held, who served as amember-at-large on the Foundation's board lastyear. "Counter and the Harvard Foundation have alot to do in regaining the trust of Jewishstudents at Harvard."

Over recent decades, however, the Universityoverall has made tremendous strides in welcomingJewish students, Finestone says.

"It's safer now to visibly and proudly be partof a minority," says Finestone. "And you know youcan still be accepted among your peers at Harvard.There were times in American academic life whereit could hurt you to be too Jewish."

Jewish students' increasing feeling ofbelonging at Harvard has been a gradual process,the rabbi says.

"It's been building for a while," she says."Each year adds to the security of the next."  D. Richard de Silva contributed to thereporting of this story.Photo Courtesy Harvard News OfficeFormer President DEREK C. BOK displays ascale model of the planned Hillel building(center), which will be located on Mt. Auburn St.,between Lowell

Jewish life at Harvard, as on many collegecampuses, centers around the Hillel house.

"For me, a big part of being Jewish on campusis Hillel," says Pamela B. Kirschner '94, co-chairof Hillel's social action committee. "It's reallylike a home."

Some first-year students active in Hillel sayit serves as an initial welcome to the College andas a unifying force for the Jewish community.

"[Hillel members] were very helpful inadjusting," says Orit Sarfaton '96. "If thereweren't a Hillel it would be very difficult tocome together."

Students at Hillel come from a broad range ofreligious backgrounds. Despite this diversity ofcommunities, students say, Hillel seessurprisingly little conflict between Orthodox,Reform and Conservative Jews.

In fact, Finestone says, Hillel activelyencourages students to "find one's own identitywithin the spectrum of Jewish life and toexperiment with different ways to be Jewish atHarvard."

Though Hillel was once primarily a religioushaven for Jews observing kosher laws and attendingservices, the organization has increasingly becomea social and cultural center for the Jewishcommunity.

"It's definitely becoming much more social,"says Jenna L. Andelman '95, Hillel's annual eventscoordinator. "Four years ago, I heard it wasbasically a bunch of Orthodox people hanging out."

Regular Hillel diners--dinner is served sixdays a week and open to all students on the mealplan--do not fit any neat stereotypes, whether ofconcentration, of political interest, or ofgeographic origin. And dinner discussions,students say, are lively and varied.

"It's not the sort of place you walk in andfind people arguing over intricacies of Talmudiclaw," says Held.

But others say they see meals at Hillel as achance to step back from the bustling diversity ofHarvard's campus.

"The social opportunities of being able to hangout with people who are like me is a break frombeing with people who aren't like me," says JoshuaHeller '94. "[Hillel] offers a friendly,protective environment."

The reputedly better-than-dining-hall food alsoaccounts for Hillel's appeal: "That's the maindraw," says one recent dinnertime guest, whodeclined to give her name.

But Hillel has not always been the activecommunity students say it is today. Theorganization was once housed at a distant locationnear the Divinity School, which Finestone sayskept its membership small.

Its present location at 74 Mt. Auburn St. and adeliberate campaign to foster a more inclusiveimage have increased student participationsignificantly.

"I think since the '80s that Jewish studentshave been more cohesive," says Finestone. "Thestructure and location of the Hillel has made thateasier."

In the past, students say, there was awidespread perception that Hillel regulars werecliquishness toward outsiders.

According to Held, the organization's leadersare currently engaged in programs to try to reachthe 80 percent of the College's Jewish studentswho do not participate in Hillel activities.

Held points to cultural and social programslike discussion groups, Israeli dancing, andSunday morning bagel brunches as draws for Jewishstudents interested in exploring non-religiousaspects of their heritage.

Although the situation is improving, somestudents say, the cliquishness is not entirelygone.

"Hillel is a really hard place to go alone,"says Stephanie Stein '94.

Richard Abrahmson '94 says he thinks manyJewish students see Hillel as "a very cliquishcommunity," but notes that "in reality, there areJews from all kinds of backgrounds."

Similarly, while Heller says that "it'scertainly possible to hide out in Hillel," hethinks the number of students who do so is small.Finestone estimates that approximately one-thirdof students active in Hillel use it as "analternative to Harvard life."

But for the majority of Hillel regulars, theorganization is "a supplement to their life atHarvard and not a barrier to it," she says.

The sense of a limited social pool is onereason a number of Jewish students say they do notspend much time in the Hillel building.

"I have a lot of non-Jewish friends, and I likespending my time with them," says Alison L. Ralph'93. "They don't necessarily feel comfortablethere."

Although the fear of isolation is not shared byall students, Ralph's pattern of visiting Hillelon an occasional basis is a typical one for Jewishstudents.

No one organization can encompass all ofHarvard's 1,600-person Jewish population, andFinestone estimates that in a typical week onlyabout 19 to 21 percent of Harvard's Jewishpopulation visits the building.

And if there is such a thing as the "Jewishexperience" at Harvard, students say it is toovaried and diverse to be encapsulated in anexamination of just Hillel.

Religious observances such as such as koshereating laws, Sabbath practices and Jewish holidaysare a defining element for some, simply because ofhow such restrictions affect everyday and sociallife.

Restrictions for observant Jews include a banon any form of work on the Sabbath, including anyuse of machines, as well as kosher dietarystrictures.

Others point to Judaism's unique nature as botha religion and an ethnicity as a difference fromother creeds and minority groups.

This dichotomy has led to some tension betweenHillel and the Harvard Foundation, which has nopermanent student representation for the Jewishcommunity.

"Jews are a religious group but not just areligious group, an ethnic group but not just anethnic group," says Held, who has in the pastpushed for a Hillel seat on the Foundation'sstudent board.

Many students say they can pinpoint nothingspecific as a uniquely "Jewish" part of being aHarvard student. Some say they do have a feelingof being a minority, and a few say they feel ananti-Jewish bias in certain social settings.

"You feel like you're in the minority a lot ofthe time," says Laurence J. Kanner '94.

This perceived prejudice is not reflective ofthe campus as a whole, students say, but a fewhave seen isolated incidents of insensitivity.

"I've experienced some comments," said onestudent, who asked that her name not be used. Shesays she has heard expressions linking Jewishnessand parsimony in her house dining hall.

The College could also do more to make Harvarda comfortably non-sectarian place, some studentssay.

A number complained of classes held on Jewishholidays, which was a problem for many studentsthis year. And the new electronic key cards issuedto first-year students have created difficultiesfor observant Jewish students trying to return totheir dorms on Friday nights.

Last spring, Hillel and the Foundation becameembroiled in controversy amidst allegations thatcomments Foundation Director S. Allen Counter hadmade about an article in The Crimson wereanti-Semitic.

"A great deal of damage was done by thatletter," says Held, who served as amember-at-large on the Foundation's board lastyear. "Counter and the Harvard Foundation have alot to do in regaining the trust of Jewishstudents at Harvard."

Over recent decades, however, the Universityoverall has made tremendous strides in welcomingJewish students, Finestone says.

"It's safer now to visibly and proudly be partof a minority," says Finestone. "And you know youcan still be accepted among your peers at Harvard.There were times in American academic life whereit could hurt you to be too Jewish."

Jewish students' increasing feeling ofbelonging at Harvard has been a gradual process,the rabbi says.

"It's been building for a while," she says."Each year adds to the security of the next."  D. Richard de Silva contributed to thereporting of this story.Photo Courtesy Harvard News OfficeFormer President DEREK C. BOK displays ascale model of the planned Hillel building(center), which will be located on Mt. Auburn St.,between Lowell

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags