Orthodox Campus Life – An Inside View

Spotlighting Religious Jews at UMass-Amherst

Note: A version of this article appeared in The Jewish Advocate (MA).

By Yoni Monat

College campuses are not known as environments that promote traditional methods of thinking or behaving. With away-from-home university attendance having reached acceptance within the American Modern Orthodox Jewish society in recent decades, strong presences on college campuses for religious observance have been imperative to helping Jewish young men and women remain committed to their faith.

KHH students at the home of UMass JLIC Rabbi Yosi and Mrs. Sheera Eisen early in the Fall 2014 semester.

KHH students at the home of UMass JLIC Rabbi Yosi and Mrs. Sheera Eisen early in the Fall 2014 semester.

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 students to maintain their religiosity during their four-year stint.

High school students who choose to attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst and join the Orthodox student group at UMass Hillel, “KHH”, chart a different course.

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.

The role that a student plays by involving him/herself in the Orthodox community is vastly different at UMass. Whereas at a university with hundreds of Orthodox students, any one person’s presence may not be accounted, each individual in KHH represents a proportionally greater share of the operation.

KHH President Ariel Rothberg (Springfield, MA) says that element provides each contributor with a sense of control over the direction that KHH proceeds in. “We’re all very close with each other. Everyone feels like they definitely have a place. It’s a very special aspect that we have here,” he said.

One such example was the Spring 2014 completion of KHH’s collection of Artscroll Gemaras, vastly increasing accessibility to the fundamental Jewish text. “One of our students, Yoni Monat, spearheaded the campaign. While Hillel staff is very supportive, all of the energy and work that came into these came from the students. It really speaks to the way that KHH functions,” Rothberg said.

Former KHH member Josh Einis (Sharon, MA), 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 wields a blowtorch in the UMass Hillel kitchen before Pesach 2014, flanked by JLIC Rabbi Yosi Eisen.

Elisheva Bukiet (West Orange, NJ), 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.”

Critical to adhering to Jewish law in a secular environment is reckoning where one stands in his/her observance, says Mordechai Horwath (Brookline, MA), who is entering his final semester at UMass.

“You’ve got to be true to yourself and how you proceed as a Jew, bottom line. You have to know where you stand with your kashrus levels, how you will react to the whole community. You can’t lie [to yourself about whether] you eat [non-kosher food] out or not, or if you’re Shomer Shabbos or not,” Horwath said.

Orthodox students require the infrastructure to practice Judaism on campus, but beyond that, numerous factors are balanced when choosing a university. Concurrently, campus Orthodox communities tend to be far less homogenous than self-selecting adult synagogues. Students who adhere fully to Shabbat laws pray alongside those who weren’t raised in such an environment.

“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 the not everybody comes from the same background.”

KHH also welcomes Orthodox students attending nearby universities, including Smith, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, and Hampshire. Sarah Teichman (West Orange, NJ), 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.

That element is highly dissimilar to the setting in Amherst. 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”.

The element of interaction with peers from diverse Jewish backgrounds is a significant reason why Bukiet says that she chose to attend UMass, and called her time on campus “eye-opening”.

“I came to UMass knowing there wouldn’t be so many other students like myself. I was happy to have that, because I wanted that learning environment. I was very much strong in my [Jewish] beliefs, so I saw it as an opportunity. I was trying to learn about and through other people,” Bukiet added.

“You end up making friends with everybody,” Einis said. “It’s nice that you’re forced to see things from a different perspective. It’s one of the reasons I came to UMass – big school with lots of resources, and a small, warm Jewish community.”

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.”

KHH Vice President Nathan Z. (NZ, of Natick, MA) spearheads the cooking efforts. “I feel it is a great way to be a part of the community and is something that the community benefits from greatly. The students are able to make a great Shabbos each and every week,” he said, thanking UMass Hillel and its benefactors for financing Shabbat meals, which are free for UMass students.

A lynchpin of the kitchen as a student mashgiach, Horwath says that he first took a leadership role freshman year to ensure Kosher food for himself and other Jewish students. “You have to make sure that you have what you need in order to live a kosher life. All of our Chagim are around food, getting everyone together. It’s a true communal meal; it brings everyone together,” he said.

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.

KHH Happenings

Freshman Adam Berelowitz places s’chach on the Sukkah outside of Franklin Dining Commons prior to Sukkot 2014, lifted by senior Mordechai Horwath.

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. Numerous students with additional dietary restrictions, such as vegetarian and gluten-free, are accommodated.

Horwath said, “It has been very important for me to be around Jewish people on a daily basis. Otherwise, you can’t really stay Jewish, if you can’t have your Jewish friends to talk about Torah or daily life.”

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 glistening Artscroll Talmud set, Rothberg termed “well-stocked” with texts in Hebrew and English. Horwath said, “We all have our own chavrusos; there’s never really an end to learning.”

Perhaps the most significant ongoing initiative is that to construct an eruv around the UMass, which would permit Jewish students to carry items on Shabbat, most notably dorm room and building keys.

While contraptions such as “Shabbat belts” exist to circumvent this, NZ, who is co-chairing the venture, says that many students would feel more comfortable with an eruv in existence. “As the UMass Jewish community grows, we see it as a vital mission to provide this essential piece of infrastructure to the kehilah [community],” he said.

With the leadership of Dr. Jesse Hefter of the Boston Eruv Commission and the assistance of UMass Religious & Spiritual Life Director Larry Goldbaum, NZ says that the Eruv is in the final portions of its planning and approval stages. He “optimistically” expects the Eruv to be established by Fall 2016.

On the Horizon

UMass Judaic Studies Chair Prof. Jay Berkovitz of Newton, MA, 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.

Dr. Steve Moses of Lowell, MA, contributed to the recent Artscroll Gemara acquisition. Because college students are at crossroads in their lives and traditional Jewish values are not in concert with those prevailing on campus, Moses, says that religiosity must be presented in an inviting manner to students with and without extensive Jewish backgrounds.

“Orthodoxy is like a rare flower that must be sought out and cultivated,” Moses said. “By maintaining a strong Orthodox presence at UMass, we are reinforcing Orthodoxy for those who currently practice it, and, we are presenting it in a convenient venue for those who are new to Orthodoxy

, and would like to grow in their observance.”

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”.

KHH students and high school juniors and seniors gather following April's KHH Prospective Students Shabbat.

KHH students and high school juniors and seniors gather following April’s KHH Prospective Students Shabbat.

The president said that his highlight was witnessing UMass-bound students become far more enthusiastic about the coming years. “Hearing some students say, ‘I’m really looking forward to running for KHH Board next year,’ was really heartening. Other high school students got a feel for what UMass is like,” Rothberg said.

No date has been set for the next such weekend, but high school seniors are encouraged to contact Rothberg (see below) to visit any Shabbat. “There’s a lot of variation between different schools, and I think we offer something that’s kind of unique. It’s a really great way to get a feel for what Jewish life is like on our campus,” he said.

Rothberg says that his hope for KHH is that as the organization expands – he is striving for a 30% population increase in the coming years – that incoming freshmen will feel as welcomed as he felt.

“As a growing community, we’re always excited for new students to come in,” he said. “We value our unique status as a small, close-knit community, but there’s definitely room for growth as far as size.”

Rothberg added, “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 (Sharon, MA) was the Education Coordinator of KHH as a freshman in Spring 2014. Yoni can be reached at jmonat@umass.edu. For more information about KHH, please visit umasskhh.org or email Ariel Rothberg at arothber@umass.edu.

Talmud Acquisition Enhances Torah Learning at UMass

By Yoni Monat

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.

The KHH Artscroll Gemara collection, housed in the UMass Hillel library, helps enable UMass students to delve into the Talmud.

The KHH Artscroll Gemara collection, housed in the UMass Hillel library, helps enable UMass students to delve into the Talmud. Credit Yoni Monat

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.”

The Talmud is the interpretation and analysis of the written Torah. Both pieces of Torah, according to Jewish tradition, were passed down from G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the Talmud was eventually written down around 500 CE. The Gemara features Rabbinic discussions that form the basis of Jewish law, and today is one of the most heavily studied Jewish texts.

Receiving a Talmud set is the equivalent to welcoming a Torah scroll, according to the 14th-century Talmudist Rabbenu Asher. Rabbi Menacham Schrader, Founding Director of the Orthodox Union’s JLIC program, which sends a rabbinic couple to the UMass campus, referenced this insight in an email to KHH students.

“Our study of the Talmud is testimony to the continuation of the Jewish people, Hashem’s chosen people, into this century and era. May Hashem provide you all with the opportunity to study and imbibe our Oral Law in its current form, and internalize its methodology and message,” Schrader wrote.

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.

Rothberg said, “One of our students, Yoni Monat, spearheaded the campaign. While Hillel staff is very supportive, all of the energy and work that came into these came from the students. It really speaks to the way that KHH functions.”

(l-r) JLIC Rabbi Yosi Eisen, Gemara benefactor Dr. Steve Moses, KHH President Ariel Rothberg, and KHH Education Coordinator Yoni Monat stand in front of the new Gemara collection at the UMass Hillel library. Credit Hayley Kats

(l-r) JLIC Rabbi Yosi Eisen, Gemara benefactor Dr. Steve Moses, KHH President Ariel Rothberg, and KHH Education Coordinator Yoni Monat stand in front of the new Gemara collection at the UMass Hillel library. Credit Hayley Kats

KHH Offers Prospective Students Shabbat Experience

AMHERST, MA – Kehillat Hillel Ha’azinu (KHH), the Orthodox student group at the UMass-Amherst Hillel, is welcoming high school seniors and juniors interested in learning more about Jewish life at UMass and the Five Colleges for a Prospective Student Shabbat in Amherst on April 4-5.

For this special Shabbat on campus, Professor Jay Berkovitz, Chair of the Judaic & Near Eastern Studies Department at UMass, will join the community as Scholar-in-Residence.

Regarding the purpose of the weekend, KHH President and UMass sophomore Ariel Rothberg said, “We want to give prospective students the opportunity to see what a Shabbat is like at our campus, and be exposed to the vibrant Jewish community that we have here.”

Prospective students will join in student-led davening, enjoy festive Shabbat meals prepared by students; interact with the OU/JLIC couple, Rabbi Yosi and Sheera Eisen; engage in Torah learning and conversations related to Jewish observance on campus; and receive an informal campus tour.

Prospective students considering the four surrounding colleges in the Five College Consortium, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, and Hampshire Colleges, are welcome to participate in KHH Prospective Shabbat.

About Kehillat Hillel Ha’azinu

Kehillat Hillel Ha’Azinu (KHH) is the Orthodox Jewish student organization of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in Amherst, MA. Founded in 2002 and a member group of UMass Hillel, KHH fulfills and furthers the religious, social, and cultural needs of the Orthodox Jewish students of UMass & the Five Colleges.

The 2014 Kehillat Hillel Ha'Azinu Board: (l-r) Secretary/Treasurer Danielle Rothenberg (freshman, NJ), Vice President Nathan Ziegler (junior, Natick, MA), President Ariel Rothberg (sophomore, Springfield, MA), Social Chair Corey Dicker (junior, NJ), and Education Coordinator Yoni Monat (freshman, Sharon, MA).

The 2014 Kehillat Hillel Ha’azinu Board: (l-r) Secretary/Treasurer Danielle Rothenberg (freshman, NJ), Vice President Nathan Ziegler (junior, Natick, MA), President Ariel Rothberg (sophomore, Springfield, MA), Social Chair Corey Dicker (junior, NJ), and Education Coordinator Yoni Monat (freshman, Sharon, MA).

For more information about KHH, please visit umasskhh.org.


For more information regarding KHH Prospective Students Shabbat, please contact:

Ariel Rothberg, KHH President


C: (413) 328-0992

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