Jewish life at Trinity more vibrant than ever
by Rhea Hirshman
When Sara Pflantzer Luria ’04 was a first-year student in 2000, Trinity’s Hillel was housed on the first floor of the football coach’s home, eating kosher food meant microwaving a kosher chicken in the kitchen pantry, and Friday night Shabbat activities were small affairs held only every other week. Luria and her friend Marcie Yoselevsky ’04 decided to see what they could contribute by volunteering to be co-presidents of Hillel the following year.
They took office in the fall of 2001 and found themselves in the middle of both the turmoil engendered by the events of September 11 and the beginning of a time of Jewish renewal on campus.
By the late 1990s, the College had made a commitment to programs in Jewish studies and Hebrew language. In early December 2001, the Zachs Hillel House was opened. Located near the other cultural houses, it immediately became not only the center of Jewish life for the Trinity community but a place that people of all backgrounds turned to for, as Luria notes, a sense of stability in an unstable time.
In the subsequent months, Luria and Yoselevsky found themselves leading services nearly every Friday night. “We created a Trinity Hillel prayer book by cutting and pasting,” Luria says, “so we could help begin shaping this resurgence of Jewish life.” Yoselevsky has gone on to work for several Jewish organizations. Last fall Luria, now a rabbi in New York, returned to Trinity to officiate at the Hillel services for the Jewish High Holy Days.
A “small and mighty” campus
Although the intensity of Jewish activity has ebbed and flowed, Trinity has long been a welcoming institution for Jewish students–one of the few at the time of its founding in 1823 that did not discriminate on the basis of religion, a commitment made in the College charter. In 1960, a Trinity fraternity chapter severed ties with its national organization because of the “parent body’s policy of discrimination against Jewish and Negro [sic] students” and maintained its policy of pledging members of both groups. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has had a presence on the Trinity campus since 1946, when the B’nai B’rith Hillel Society formed “primarily to offer a religious, cultural, and social outlet for Trinity students of the Jewish faith.” Leonard E. Greenberg ’48 was one of a small number of Jewish students who helped to co-found the organization.
Now, Jewish religious, cultural, and academic life is flourishing here as never before. Reform Judaism magazine’s fall 2013 Insider’s Guide to College Life listed Trinity among the “Top 20 Small & Mighty Campuses of Excellence.” The designation’s criteria include innovative programming, growing Jewish enrollment, demonstrated support by the College, a commitment to serve Jews of all backgrounds, and a dedicated professional leader.
Trinity’s leader is Lisa Pleskow Kassow, who served as a part-time Hillel director in the early 1990s and returned as the full-time director just as the Zachs Hillel House was opening. The Kassow Hillel Kosher Eatery, installed in Mather Hall in May 2012, is named in honor of her and her husband, Samuel Kassow ’66, Charles H. Northam Professor of History.
From Sushi in the Sukkah to Holocaust remembrance
Under Kassow’s direction, Hillel has expanded in size and scope. “Lisa works collaboratively all around campus and with tremendous creativity,” says College Chaplain Allison Read.
With a mission of building a welcoming community of informed and engaged Jewish young adults, Trinity Hillel offers many points of entry into Jewish life. “We want students to share meaningful, authentic Jewish experiences,” Kassow says. Some programs are less traditional than others; for instance, “Sushi in the Sukkah” brought an Asian flavor to the fall harvest holiday of Sukkot. Some programs may not even be specifically Jewish. One recent example: a presentation about high-end Scotch for the 21-and-over-crowd by a professor who had been to Scotland. “There we were, among 500 Yiddish books and the Schottenstein Talmud,” Kassow says. “You definitely knew that you were in a Jewish environment–and the Scotch was kosher.”
But the heart of what happens through Hillel lies in the weekly Shabbat gatherings, major holiday celebrations, and activities rooted in Jewish traditions, practices, and values, with a strong emphasis on community service. Themed Shabbat program–recently there have been Egyptian, Iraqi, and Italian Shabbats, based on the Jewish customs and cuisines from those cultures–are among the many ways that Hillel promotes intercultural understanding. Pink Shabbat, begun by Molly Goodwin ’09 in her sophomore year with Hillel’s support, is now an annual campuswide event in which organizations collaborate to provide information and raise funds for breast cancer research while participating in Hillel’s Shabbat traditions.
While the College offers opportunities for study abroad in Israel and Trinity Hillel annually sponsors Taglit-Birthright trips to Israel, Kassow has also led several recent trips that encouraged students to explore Judaism in other contexts. One was to the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda, where students helped refurbish a Jewish primary school. Another was an interfaith journey, led also by Read and Imam Adeel Zeb, for a weeklong immersion in Trinidad’s diverse religious and cultural traditions. The visit included meeting the 90-year-old leader of the island’s Jewish community, a Holocaust survivor.
Holocaust remembrance–Yom HaShoah–is another significant event on the Hillel calendar. Occurring in the spring, it is both a worldwide commemoration and a deeply personal experience; often, the programs are led by students who are the grandchildren of survivors. “This is an opportunity to teach about lives lost, cultures destroyed, and the resonance of that historical reality for everyone,” Kassow says.
Finding one’s Jewish place
Students are not the only ones participating in Jewish life on campus. Weekly “lunch and learn” conversations sponsored through the Jewish Studies Program bring together faculty, staff, and students for wide-ranging discussions often focused on the week’s Torah portion. Friday night Shabbat services welcome friends such as West Hartford resident Alan Mendelson ’69, president of the Hillel advisory board. “I look forward to attending Shabbat services several times a semester,” Mendelson says. “It’s a wonderful respite from the work week. Lisa has developed a true home away from home for Jewish students and a welcoming place for visitors.”
Still, students are the focus, whether they are from traditional backgrounds, just connecting to their Judaism, or any place in between. “While academia is not in the business of teaching or promoting spiritual practices or religious beliefs,” Read says, “students come here with beliefs or questions–usually both–and our role is to attend to that aspect of their lives during four important years.”
Says Luria, “Hillel felt like home when I was a student, but Jewish life is now integrated on campus in a way that it was not 12 years ago. The Jewish population is more pluralistic, and students are engaged in thoughtful and creative ways.” Kassow adds, “Our task is both to model the great beauty and diversity of Jewish life and culture and to create spaces where students can, through examining and articulating their own beliefs and stories, work toward a common good.”
Trinity’s Jewish Heritage
With the help of Trinity Hillel board member and R.C. Knox and Company Connecticut Scholar Ethan Cantor ’16, we reached out to several Jewish alumni to learn more about their experiences at Trinity and after graduation. The product, Trinity’s Jewish Heritage, is a series of online profiles that you may find on the Trinity Hillel Web site.
We hope that these profiles, which are presented in a question-and-answer format, will provide a glimpse of the rich history of Jewish life at Trinity College and the positive impact of Trinity Hillel throughout the years.
“Hillel now feels like a second home to me. It’s a place of worship, a quiet place to study, and a Jewish community that has its arms wide open for anyone who wants to be involved.”