There’s More to Wesleyan Than The Forward’s Numbers Tell You

Like many Jewish students, we came to college unsure of what to expect. During the first week of school, a pair of Naot sandals and a knit kippah quickly led to a game of Jewish geography, the start of our friendship. Both from Ramah and USY backgrounds, we were excited to find a kindred spirit. Soon after, we came across Jewish life at Wesleyan, and many of our uncertainties were put to rest. We have stayed friends over the years, despite being leaders of different sub-communities — Talia with the Wesleyan Jewish Community (the formal Jewish organization on campus) and Matt with Chabad. That’s part of the beauty of Jewish life at Wesleyan: There are numerous avenues for involvement.

The low ratings that The Forward’s College Guide gave to Wesleyan Jewish life dramatically misrepresented our campus. While we realize that college ratings are inherently imperfect, trying to encapsulate entire experiences in one number, we felt that this rating in particular seriously failed to represent the vibrant Wesleyan Jewish life we know and love. Many students and alumni, ourselves included, felt frustrated and hurt. While Wesleyan Jewish life isn’t for everyone, it is life changing for many. Perhaps the most unique thing about our community is just how student-run it is. Jewish life evolves from year-to-year based on the desires and needs of the current student body. Therefore, it’s imperative that The Forward’s rating doesn’t serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy, scaring students away by not representing all that Wesleyan Jewish life has to offer.

If you’re looking for pluralism in Jewish background and practice, Wesleyan is for you. Jewish students come to Wesleyan from many different streams of Judaism, and, as recently as this summer, have gone back to Habonim Dror camps, Ramah camps, Camp Alonim, Mechon Hadar, BCI, Machon Kaplan, CLIP, and various programs in Israel. In addition to academic offerings (the Jewish and Israel Studies certificate, the Contemporary Israeli Voices series, and the Israeli Film Festival), the university provides kosher/halal food in the dining hall (Sunday-Friday lunch). There are four Israel/Palestine student groups: Cardinals for Israel, J Street U, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Students for Justice in Palestine. We also have students for whom Israel/Palestine is not a major tenet of their Judaism. Less than a half mile from campus, there’s a Conservative synagogue that offers morning minyan and Shabbat morning services and hires Wesleyan students to teach Hebrew school. When it comes to on-campus religious, spiritual, and cultural needs, Chabad and/or the Wesleyan Jewish Community are always there.

The Wesleyan Jewish Community (WJC), housed under the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and advised by Rabbi David Teva Leipziger, includes Jews by birth, Jews by choice, and non-Jews. Though WJC predates the Open Hillel movement, the 2014 student leadership declared WJC an Open Hillel. Every Friday, WJC holds student-led Shabbat services in the Bayit (a residential space for students interested in Jewish culture) followed by a free, homemade dinner! The service style and dinner menu vary by week and students leading. There are clergy-led services and catered meals for major Jewish holidays. WJC also offers a range of social, educational, interfaith, and social justice programming, all created by the student board. In 2016, I (Talia) and Julia DeVarti planned an event for World Wide Wrap that included a how-to session for wrapping tefillin (phylacteries); a joyous Shacharit (morning) service; brunch; and the distribution of a ‘zine about Judaism and gender, filled with student artwork and poetry. Planning this event was a highlight of my time at Wesleyan, showing me just how much I value creating meaningful pathways into Judaism.

Wesleyan’s chapter of Chabad on Campus started seven years ago, thanks to the leadership of Rabbi Levi Schectman and his wife Chanie. Chabad at Wesleyan organizes weekly Shabbat dinners with meals in a family style setting, offers text study classes, and runs Jewish cultural events in the heart of campus. When I (Matt) walked into my first Chabad Challah braiding event, I immediately knew I was home. The smell of fresh challah dough and the friendly smiles of other Jewish students in that one moment has stuck with me and encouraged me to take a leadership role. This last year, the student board and I organized a special Shabbat dinner in which 60+ students came together to sing, eat, and bond in a phone-free setting. To accommodate the desire for more programming like this, Chabad is moving into a new and larger house this year!

In short, the best way to learn about a college campus is to talk with current students. While The Forward ranking chose to quote Jewish professionals at many schools, we’d like to leave you with the thoughts of our peers:

“In the Wesleyan Jewish Community, I have been able to create a number of new friendships and find a spiritual community despite being an atheist Jew.” — Leo Gregorio, student, 2020

“Wesleyan is a great place for transfers, and WJC was one of the most actively friendly groups. At the first s’mores cookout, I was overwhelmed with questions — but the good kind! WJC members were working to figure out what advice, connections, and resources they could share with me. It didn’t take long for me to go to a Friday night service and get hooked! This year, I’m living in the Bayit with lots of diverse friends, Jewish and not.” — Vanessa Auritt, student, 2019

“It hasn’t always been easy being at Wesleyan as a practicing Orthodox Jew, but Chabad has done their best to help with that! Both Levi and Chanie are such warm and caring people; they devote so much time and energy to the students and will arrange their whole day if even a single student needs something.” — Joy Feinberg, student, 2019

“Wesleyan Jewish Community is where I’ve become more invested than ever in living a Jewish life. The fact that the community is student-run is what makes it so amazing. WJC embraces the questions and challenges that come with being Jewish, which is why I feel so at home in the Wesleyan Jewish Community.” — Rachele Merliss, student, 2019

“Having a reflective group of Jews that I can spend time with casually and also do ritual things with has made me into a more thoughtful Jew and person. WJC has been both a haven of familiarity for me, a day school kid, while also pushing me to actively engage with my Judaism.” — Ben Klausner, student, 2018

“As someone raised in a non-observant household and community, the WJC provided me with an understanding and enthusiastic space to reconnect and learn about all aspects of Judaism from a huge variety of backgrounds.” — Giorgia Peckman, student, 2018

“A Jewish home away from home is exactly what I needed, and that’s what I found at Chabad at Wes. I feel a sense of pride that I had not been able to develop before this year.” — Grace Rubin, student, 2018

“The Wesleyan Jewish Community is one of the first places I finally felt that my activism and Judaism could be one and the same. I’d learned a lot about the relationship between social justice and Judaism from Hebrew school and my family, but it was within the WJC that I finally felt that one wasn’t being used to justify the other; the people doing the work of activism and community truly lived in the intersection of the two.” — Josh Bloom, alumnus, 2017

“The Wesleyan Jewish Community’s Open Hillel was by far the most supportive, instructive, and formative environment beyond the classroom that I had at Wesleyan. It instilled in me a commitment to continue to create pluralistic, inclusive Jewish spaces as I move forward.” — Sonya Levine, alumna, 2017

“Coming from where I did, I’d never really hung out with or even known a lot of Jewish kids. Chabad at Wes provided me a nice way to interact with kids who had a stronger Jewish identity in a really comfortable, judgment free environment” — Ben Marvin-Vanderryn, alumnus, 2017

“I was not Jewish before coming to Wesleyan. I fell into the Wesleyan Jewish community almost by accident, loved it, and am now applying to grad school at Hebrew College for cantorial ordination. At Wes, I was a regular at Shabbat services, took Hebrew courses to learn to read the siddur, and graduated with the Jewish and Israel Studies Certificate. WJC was an incredible source of support and played a huge role in where I am now.” –- Shira Gaudet, alumna, 2013

This article is part of the Forward’s first-ever College Guide — to read more fascinating stories and see the definitive rankings, click here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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There’s More to Wesleyan Than The Forward’s Numbers Tell You

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