AMHERST – The accessibility of Torah learning for Jewish students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst significantly expanded prior to the new semester, with the recent acquisition of a complete set of the Artscroll Schottenstein Gemara.
An initiative in the Spring 2014 semester by the Orthodox Jewish student group at UMass Hillel, “KHH,” to expand their collection of the Babylonian Talmud (i.e. Gemara), proved remarkably successful. KHH inaugurated Artscroll’s widely-acclaimed, 73-volume work (translated from Aramaic into easy-to-follow English) with a festive ceremony in April.
“It’s a wonderful milestone for our community,” said KHH President Ariel Rothberg, a UMass junior from Springfield. “Torah study is a very important part of Jewish life, and having this collection of Gemaras will really allow students to engage in the texts in an accessible manner.”
KHH received support from many individuals and institutions in the broader Massachusetts Jewish populace during its Gemara fundraising efforts.
Dr. Steve Moses of Lowell, who contributed the majority of the volumes, says that physical availability of the Talmud in the Hillel library is an important resource for Jewish students; those experienced in Gemara learning can further their studies, while curiosity may be piqued among others who have not been exposed to the Talmud.
Sustaining Judaism in College
Swarms of Jewish high schoolers choose universities such as Maryland and Binghamton for their well-established Jewish student groups, which provide them with an environment that socially enables many young men and women to maintain their religiosity during their four-year stint.
Orthodox high school students who come to UMass chart a different course. Located 90 miles west of Boston, Massachusetts’ flagship state university offers Kosher food throughout the week, and KHH facilitates Shabbat Orthodox prayer services, Torah learning opportunities featuring JLIC couple Rabbi Yosi and Sheera Eisen, and social programming for Orthodox students to interact.
Former KHH member Josh Einis of Sharon, who earned his UMass diploma in May, says that KHH fosters a flexible environment for students. “As a community member, you’re an integral part of the community. The community is pretty loose; people are welcome to do what they like. There’s stuff that needs to be done. If you don’t know how to do it, you learn how. And if you do know how, you’re valued for it.”
Elisheva Bukiet, another Spring 2014 graduate, says that she and other Orthodox girls who have succeeded in retaining their observance at UMass have all involved themselves heavily in various aspects of Jewish life.
“We all cared a lot about our Judaism. The Jewish community was a main part of our experience at college,” Bukiet said. “It can’t be something in the background, because you’re always working hard on it. You have to want to be involved in it.”
“We try to make everyone feel comfortable all the time – support everyone in whatever level of religiosity they feel comfortable with,” Rothberg said. “We’re a very non-judgmental group of people. Students are very aware that not everybody comes from the same background.”
KHH also welcomes Orthodox students attending nearby universities, including Smith, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, and Hampshire. Sarah Teichman, a Smith senior, says that she couldn’t attend Smith without KHH’s presence and that girls in KHH have been “exceedingly gracious” in hosting her for Shabbat.
“KHH gives me the opportunity to be with other people who face some of the same [challenges] as we try to navigate the intersection between our religious beliefs and practices and the secular worlds that we live in,” said Teichman.
A Dynamic Shabbat
At some universities with robust numbers of Orthodox students, the Orthodox segregates itself from the remainder of the Jewish student body on Shabbat. At UMass, the Orthodox population is highly integrated with other Jewish students on Shabbat at Hillel. Following denominationally-divided Friday night prayer services, all Jews share Shabbat dinner in the Hillel dining room, which Bukiet said “rocks”.
Perhaps the most prominent feature of Orthodox students’ direct importance in ensuring viability of Jewish observance at UMass is in the Hillel kitchen. Under the kashrus supervision of the Vaad of Springfield and of Rabbi Eisen, KHH students gather each Thursday night to bake, season, and dice their entire Shabbat afternoon meal.
“Thursday night cooking is a time to bond with people,” said Bukiet. “It’s fun to cook and make the meal. It’s really important, since we all need to eat on Shabbos. It’s also a good time to learn how to cook.”
All KHH Shabbat services are led by students, including Torah reading, and collegians deliver weekly Divrei Torah. Horwath, a frequent ba’al tefillah (davening leader), said, “Everyone gets into it. The ruchniyus, spirituality level, lifts you up. It’s really close-knit; at the end of the day, you’re brothers and sisters.”
Shabbat day features a smaller crowd than frenetic Friday nights at Hillel, which Teichman says creates a more “intimate” vibe of Orthodox students molding their Shabbat. “It feels more like a gathering of friends and family, and the atmosphere is fun, relaxed, and enjoyable,” she said.
During the school week, the hub for Orthodox students is the Kosher Dining Commons (KDC), located inside the Franklin dining hall. KDC (also under the Vaad of Springfield) serves made-to-order meat/pareve lunches and dinners all week, and many students on the Kosher meal plan opt to dine together.
“KDC is definitely a really positive aspect of going to school here,” said Rothberg. “The food is phenomenal. The food definitely matches up with the rest of UMass’ [No. 1] nationally-ranked dining, both in the quality and diversity of the food.”
Students on the Kosher meal plan enjoy a personal relationship with the Kosher kitchen staff, enabling the diners to request special dishes, Rothberg says.
Bukiet noted that Franklin’s layout allows Kosher eaters to sit with friends not on the Kosher meal plan. “Everyone in college is very into eating, and it’s a good way to meet people,” she said.
Away from the plate, KHH launched a joint initiative this past spring with Jewish Leaders in Business, a club in UMass’ Isenberg School of Management. Rabbi Eisen led a discussion on Jewish business ethics, tailored to Jewish students readying to enter the marketplace.
Many students advance their Torah learning by forming chavrusos (learning partners) with Rabbi Eisen, Chabad Rabbis Chaim Adelman and Shmuel Kravitsky.
Students regularly utilize the Beit Midrash at Hillel, which, in addition to the Artscroll Talmud set, Rothberg termed “well-stocked” with texts in Hebrew and English.
Perhaps the most significant ongoing initiative is to construct an eruv around UMass, which would permit Jewish students to carry items on Shabbat, most notably dorm room and building keys.
On the Horizon
UMass Judaic Studies Chair Prof. Jay Berkovitz of Newton, a 30-year faculty member who joined KHH for Prospective Students Shabbat in April, says that he considers the flourishing of KHH an “incredibly important” asset to the Greater Boston Jewish community.
“It has become possible for observant families who reside in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S. to take advantage of this extraordinary public university. UMass is a leader in higher education in so many areas.
“I view the Orthodox community here as nothing short of inspiring. It prays and studies together while also remaining involved with the larger Jewish and campus communities. Observant young men and women are thriving in Amherst,” Berkovitz added.
The most bustling Shabbat for KHH in Spring 2014 was when the community welcomed 25 high school seniors and juniors to experience Shabbat on campus, with Berkovitz serving as scholar-in-residence. Rothberg called the April weekend, KHH’s largest since 2005, a “tremendous success”.
“If you are a student looking for a smaller community where you really have a big impact and will be a very important part of the community, then I think KHH is a great choice for you.”
Yoni Monat of Sharon was the Education Coordinator of KHH as a freshman in Spring 2014. Yoni can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about KHH, please visit umasskhh.org or email Ariel Rothberg at email@example.com.