As Christmas approaches, strings of holiday lights illuminate trees, winter festivals bring cheer to Somerville and Cambridge, and religious minorities in the city find their own light and warmth.
Only 4 percent of Boston’s adults are Jewish, according to data from Pew Research Center. It’s no surprise that Jewish students may feel alienated by the city’s strong Christmas spirit. At Tufts University, they’re searching for a place to connect to themselves, to their religious identities, and to each other.
For more than five years, Rabbi Jordan Braunig has been working to help more Jewish students at Tufts University feel at home.
His Initiative for Innovative Community Building within Tufts Hillel, Tufts’ Jewish student organization, brings together a group of 20 student fellows each year to build an intentional Jewish community.
The program mandates that fellows grab coffee with 30 Jewish students each year, initiating casual conversations known as “engagements.” Topics in these conversations range from roommate troubles, homesickness, and plans after senior year, but also may touch on deeper issues, like family, individuality, and Jewish identity. Braunig hopes that throughout the year, 600 Jewish students will be engaged through the program.
The goal is to help students gain a deeper understanding of their own Judaism, Braunig says.
“The notion is to decentralize Jewish life on campus, to create more spaces for people to engage meaningfully with Jewish identity, tradition, their own journey, and also to gain a sense of … authorship, self-ownership of their story,” he says.
Removed from parental influence, college students must make their own decisions about their religious practice.
“There are some elements of Jewish life that feel very pediatric,” Braunig explains. “It’s all about what you do for your children, but it has very little to do with you. What better time in your life to actually figure out what this means to you as when you’re 18 to 22?”
The team of 20 fellows is split into two cohorts that each meet weekly. Braunig says these meetings give fellows a space to process their own Jewish lives and build relationships within smaller groups as they reflect on their work on campus. Dani Musoff, who participated in the program her sophomore year and returned this year as a senior fellow, says cohort meetings are the highlight of her week.
“Getting to be there for people, but also having a space for yourself—the program does that in a special way,” Musoff says.
Becca Gertler participated with Musoff two years ago and returned as a senior because she missed the emotional and spiritual fulfillment the program gave her.
“Freshman year, talking about Judaism was not a part of my daily life, and it became so sophomore year by having cohort and engaging with people,” she says. “It was very nice to have that community, even if we’re not talking about Jewish things.”
Another component of the fellowship are initiatives: programs born out of the fellows’ conversations. Fellows may recognize that a group of Jewish students are missing something in their Jewish lives on campus and work to create it. Examples include a Hanukkah party at Tamper, a local cafe; a traditional Passover seder in a student’s off-campus house; and student-organized holiday dinners—not only for Hanukkah, but for the important Jewish holidays that happen each autumn.
Musoff says that the fellowship helped her understand that Jewish community exists beyond Tufts Hillel’s building on campus. Throughout her time as a fellow, she’s grown more comfortable with attending programming inside the building.
“I think it’s really amazing that we provide a chance to build a Jewish community outside of that physical building,” she says.
Nina Kravetz graduated in 2019. She participated in the program as a sophomore and rejoined her senior year as a senior fellow. For Kravetz, the program provided a chance to practice and improve a basic skill with everyday applications: conversation. Braunig trains each year’s group of fellows in reflective listening, urging them to practice conversational skills within cohort meetings.
“We practiced making the transition from a shallow conversation to a deeper conversation,” Kravetz says.
Gertler adds that fellows’ outreach to Jews on campus—beyond normative Hillel programming—is an important aspect of the program.
“For me, it was about making spaces for people to connect with their Judaism without feeling overwhelmed by it,” Gertler explains.
In a city and school where it may be difficult to embrace spirituality, Hillel’s Community Building Fellowship provides a sense of community for Jewish students who need it.
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