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Jewish life at CU

CU's main bulidingIN mid-December, as the rest of Colorado struggles for a scintilla of warmth, activity at CU Boulder reaches the boiling point.

Cell phone plans max out as kids struggle to organize study groups before finals. Voicemails play tennis as friends ready for winter break and anxious parents verify flight schedules.

According to the office of planning, budget and analysis, CU welcomed approximately 30,659 students –– including undergraduate, graduate, full- and part-time students –– this fall.

Hillel at CU estimates that over 2,000 of them are Jewish –– a dieter’s slice of the demographic pie.

“You do realize that CU is not Brandeis,” one young woman admonishes the IJN via her crackling cell.

So where does Judaism rank in terms of practice and priorities for the young people who choose CU’s multicultural mix over Brandeis, Yeshiva University and other academic Jewish bastions dotting the East Coast?

Being Jewish is the fundamental trait that unites the four students we interviewed –– but how they actualize their faith differs for each person.

Some are involved in Hillel, Jewish studies and synagogues in Boulder.

Others remain on the tentative fringes of Judaism.

Regardless of their involvement in Jewish life, they all identify as Jews on campus and accept their minority status.

And they unanimously agree that CU is perfect for Jewish students because it offers plentiful resources for those who want to take advantage of their heritage –– with “want” being the operative verb.

Carly Coons, a CU sophomore and vice president of Hillel, says there are abundant opportunities “for people who want to be Jewish in their own way: fraternities, sororities, Chabad, Hillel, student groups.”

Kara Zucker, a 22-year-old political science major, feels that CU “provides all the resources if you want to meet other Jewish students on campus. You can get involved if you want – very much so.”

Jessica Schwab, 19, is returning to CU this January after a semester at the Naropa Institute. She was fairly detached from Judaism until she took courses at CU’s Program in Jewish Studies, headed by Prof. David Shneer.

“I took two classes and was blown away,” she says.

“I would go in and talk to David weekly about Jewish history and other things. And we stayed in touch when I was at Naropa. He’s like my mentor.”

Alex Horowitz, 23, says that while he is not aligned with any particular Jewish group, “I know that many would welcome me.

“There are all these organizations with open arms that allow students to make up their own minds.

“That in itself is the beauty of being a Jewish student at CU. I’ve never felt there’s no place for me here. In fact, there are many –– if you’re looking for one.”

ALEX Horowitz, a political science major, transferred to CU from a junior college in his home state of California.

The child of an interfaith marriage, his parents converted him to Judaism at birth and belonged to a Reform synagogue, where Alex became a Bar Mitzvah.

A Birthright trip in 2007 “made a big impact on my life,” he comments.

Horowitz says that although he identifies as a Jew on campus, his religion does not determine his friendships.

“I grew up in an environment that was more culturally than religiously Jewish, but I’ve always considered myself an American Jew.

“Still, I choose to hang out with people from all types of religions and cultures. I don’t narrow my views or judge people by their religion.

“I feel that Jewish kids –– similar to kids from other cultures –– tend to congregate with each other, but I don’t want to limit myself. In fact, I’d like to see those cultural barriers torn down.

“My upbringing taught me to keep an open mind. And it’s really been a blessing.”

Horowitz, the campus outreach and community relations coordinator for the Program in Jewish Studies, says that he’s “not a typical Jewish student.

“While other students participate in Hillel and Chabad, I look at Jewish life from a purely academic perspective.

“Even though I don’t feel like I have to join Hillel or Chabad or other Jewish groups, this program has given me an incredible foot in the Jewish door. I’m an observer rather than a participant.”

His thinking resonates with the program’s mission statement, which is attracting students of all faiths and backgrounds to the excitement of scholarly Jewish exploration.

“I have to check my religion at the door,” he says.

Despite regarding himself as an objective observer of Jewish life, Horowitz admits that the academi and personal often blur.

“I’ve been thinking of Chanukah,” he admits, “and I feel there’s something inside me that needs to and wants to” celebrate the winter holiday.

He even planned to attend his first Chabad Chanukah candlelighting ceremony.

“There are always places I can go,” he says. “I find that Jewish groups trying to engage students for the holidays are incredibly warm and embrace all levels of observance.

“I really believe there’s something for everyone –– and that’s why it’s such a pleasure to be here.”

FOR senior Kara Zucker of Phoenix, her four Jewishly active years at CU have been worth every hefty out-of-state tuition statement.

Raised in a Reform family that emphasized social action over kashrut, she says her level of observance was “not very religious. My sister went to a Jewish day school and I attended public school. I was also very active in the temple youth group.”

When Zucker was researching colleges, she made sure they offered a substantial Jewish presence “before I even applied,” she says. “I didn’t want to be the only Jew on campus!

“Seriously, it was important that there were Jewish organizations that could help me meet other Jewish students. That’s what I was most passionate about.”

Asked whether she identifies as a Jew at CU, Zucker answers “very, very, very much so.”

But she doesn’t announce her religion when she walks into a roomful of strangers.

“Usually I introduce myself before I tell people I’m Jewish,” she laughs.

Although most of her friends are Jewish, Zucker says she belongs to many student groups “where I’m in the minority. They often use me as a resource, like, ‘When is Chanukah this year?’ And it feels kind of nice to help out that way.”

Her preference for surrounding herself with fellow Jews “just comes naturally,” she says. “It’s similar to running into someone who’s from Phoenix or another political science major.

“But of course I have non-Jewish friends,” she adds. “I have friends of all genders, ethnicities, races and religions.”

Zucker, a member of Hillel’s student board for the last three years, recently founded the Jewish Leadership Council for presidents of all Jewish campus groups.

“CU has really grown Jewishly over the past five to ten years,” she says. “I felt we needed a group where we could coordinate community-wide events and support each other.”

In addition to Hillel and Chabad, CU has Jewish sororities, fraternities and a pro-Israel group.

Zucker, who is rarely able to go back to Arizona for the Jewish holidays, is frequently invited to students’ homes in Denver.

But it’s her decision.

“If I stay here on Yom Kippur,” she says, “I’ll study with other Jewish kids because they know I’m fasting. It just makes it easier.”

She teaches religious school at Har HaShem every Sunday and observes Shabbat “almost every single Friday, which I never did at home. Everyone I know here celebrates Shabbat. You don’t even think about it.

“CU is not overwhelmingly Jewish,” Zucker says, “yet I’ve become more involved in Jewish life. It’s just something I need in my life.”

JESSICA Schwab is already home in Los Angeles for winter break. In a few weeks, the undeclared major returns to CU after a semester studying alternative education at Naropa.

“We weren’t incredibly religious,” she says of her family. “I think my Jewish upbringing was more from a cultural perspective than observance. It was really about respecting our ancestors.

“I come from a very tight Jewish community, but I was never too involved with it.”

Schwab was attracted to CU “for the out-of-state experience and the study abroad program –– and not at all because of anything Jewish.”

Still, when she arrived at CU as a freshman, Schwab was “shocked” that there were so few Jews.

“People were surprised that I was Jewish,” she says. “But that didn’t bother me. I felt like I could teach them some things. And I realized how special my Judaism was.”

Like most of her fellow students, Schwab does not limit her friendships to Jews.

“Most of my friends in Boulder are not Jewish. Still, I find myself enjoying being around Jewish people.”

Schwab attributes her Jewish awareness to Prof. David Shneer and the program in Jewish studies –– which appeals to non-Jews as well.

She took two classes at the center, one in Jewish history and the other in the history of Yiddish culture.

The mentoring relationship that developed between Schwab and Shneer further propelled her interest in Judaism.

“I don’t belong to any Jewish student organizations now,” she says, “but I plan on participating in Hillel next semester.”

While observing Shabbat is not on her immediate agenda, Schwab is currently celebrating Chanukah with her family in California.

“Not in a very religious way,” she qualifies, “but in a traditional way.”

Although the Jewish scene at CU can never compare with the environment of her youth, Schwab is convinced that “it will develop more and more as the years go on.”

Schwab is now  considering majoring in Jewish studies.

SOPHOMORE Carly Coons, the daughter of Rich and Cindy Coons of Denver, combines her commitment to Judaism with a deep appreciation of the wider world.

A dynamo in Denver’s Jewish community from a young age, Coons was a student teacher at Temple Sinai and president of NFTY’s Missouri Valley Region her senior year in high school.

“I did anything you could possible do –– and then a little bit more,” she laughs.

An international affairs major and Jewish studies minor at CU, Coons shares a house with one Jewish and two non-Jewish housemates.

“When the Jewish holidays come up, we share and explain them to our non-Jewish housemates,” she says.

“For example, we’ll all light Chanukah candles tonight. In turn, they teach me about the Christian holidays. Learning about other people and cultures adds to my life.”

Coons, who is vice president of Hillel, insists that Judaism is not a deciding factor in her friendships.

“My religion, instead of deciding who I am, helps build who I am,” she says. “Judaism has given me a set of morals and values and shaped the person I have become –– but it’s not the only thing that defines me.

“The great thing about being Jewish is that at the end of the day, there’s a community here for me.”

Coons doesn’t automatically share the fact that she’s Jewish in social situations at the university.

“It depends,” she says. “I never take off my hamsa necklace, and sometimes that might start the conversation” about being Jewish.

“Other than that, people usually realize I’m Jewish if something comes up relating to Judaism or Israel. If the subject doesn’t come up, I’m fine with it.”

One of the Shabbat service leaders at Hillel, she estimates that 15 to 60 students attend on any given week. “It’s very back and forth, but a core group of about 35 people attend most programs.

“When you consider the number of Jews on campus, not that many are involved with Hillel,” she reflects. “One of the things we’re working on is reaching out to those students.”

CU’s relatively sparse Jewish population has its positives and negatives, she says.

“It’s not like a school in the East,” she admits. “But because the Jewish community is smaller, it’s very close knit.

“When I’m just walking on campus I see so many people I know, and it’s a really comforting feeling.”

Coons will spend the fall 2010 semester at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

SMARTPHONES boast countless apps that connect users to specific destinations. Whether practical or recreational, choices are just a scroll away.

The same dynamic is in place regarding Jewish life at CU.

For most Jewish students, college is a time to stretch one’s intellectual and social wings.

Parents can only hope that the journey circles back to a semblance of home.

At CU, where Jews are in a minority, one’s commitment to Judaism appears to be a matter of choice –– as our interview subjects stressed again and again.

Despite a plethora of Jewish opportunities, students are free to ignore them. After all, institutional entry points to Judaism don’t resonate with everyone –– including adults.

But being the “stranger” in a non-Jewish world often stimulates a simple delight in the familiar –– and might lead to increased Jewish  commitment.

“You meet someone and they say, ‘I’m Jewish! You’re Jewish!’” Zucker says. “That’s so cool.”

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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