On Being Jewish at Williams: Pluralism, Culture, and Community

This is a guest blog post from Miranda Cooper ’16. Miranda is a board member of WCJA and has served as social chair since 2013. She is an English major and Jewish Studies concentrator at Williams. 

When I was applying to colleges, I gave barely any thought to Jewish life on campus. This was not because I didn’t care about being engaged with a Jewish community; on the contrary, I was very attached to my various Reform Jewish commitments throughout high school (leading my Temple Youth Group, attending regional NFTY events, working as a teaching assistant at religious school, attending and then being a counselor at URJ camp) and wanted to continue my involvement throughout college. But having grown up in Pittsburgh, where you can walk down the main thoroughfare in Squirrel Hill and pass four shuls, a JCC, a yeshiva, and your friend’s Bubbe, it just never occurred to me that I might find myself in a place where I would actively have to seek out Jewish life. So unlike some of my friends at Williams, for whom a strong Jewish presence on campus was a major factor in their college decisions and who were in many cases unsure about coming to Williams for this reason, I had no idea that any one college might have a “better” Jewish community than another.

Miranda Cooper is an English major and Jewish Studies concentrator.
Miranda Cooper ’16

I was remarkably lucky. Williams is about 12% Jewish, compared to the 30-40% of some other, larger prestigious universities, and not so long ago it was a bastion of white, male, Christian privilege where traditional fraternities dominated the social culture. But despite these markers that might make it less appealing for a motivated Jewish high schooler than, say, a large Ivy League school, it is, in my experience, absolutely wonderful to be a Jewish student at Williams. Our Jewish organization is called Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA). We—unlike most of those schools—do not have a huge Hillel with multiple minyans (different services for Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews). We are one pluralistic community, with students who are Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, “Just Jewish,” culturally Jewish only, and anyone else who finds Jewishness a comfortable fit for them in some way all sitting at the same Shabbat table and attending the same High Holiday service. This, in a nutshell, is what I find so beautiful and so compelling about Jewish life at Williams. Pluralism is certainly not always easy—see our Jewish Chaplain’s recent post on this very subject—but it is so, so worth it. We argue over which hekshers are acceptable in our splendid kosher kitchen, whether it is okay to use cell phones in the JRC on Saturdays, and what melody of Ahavat Olam to sing at Friday night services, but we come out of the other side of these arguments with our minds more open, and we never stop being dedicated to bettering the community that we have found to be a home (maybe we should call it a continuous process of tikkun WCJA). Some of us daven every morning, some of us eat pork dumplings on Christmas Eve, some of us had b’nai mitzvah, some of us lit Shabbat candles every week growing up, some of us drove to swim practice on Saturday mornings for years, some of us went to Jewish summer camp where we had a campfire every Friday night, some of us won’t carry anything outside the house on Shabbat, some of us are fluent in Hebrew, some of us can’t read a word of it. Yet all of us cherish our Jewishness for some reason or another, and all of us cherish being part of a community in which—in turn—each person cherishes every other person’s unique Jewishness.

I came to Williams a proud Reform Jew, but now, a little more than halfway through my precious time here, I am not sure how useful that categorization is for me. I have recently toyed with the term “Jewmanist,” in part just because I like words and it is fun to say. (I thought of it myself, yes, but it turns out that so did a lot of other progressive Jewish types.) I am grateful for my warm Reform upbringing, and the Reform Jewish openness to novelty, commitment to social justice, and love of songleading and music will always be very close to my heart. But my weekly Shabbat practice nowadays most closely resembles a Conservative one, and in the Jewish Religious Center (our stunningly beautiful little Jewish haven on campus), I observe Kashrut to a tee that would please an Orthodox mashgiach. I have found that focusing too much on these labels limits rather than strengthens the Jewish community that WCJA provides. A dear friend of mine once suggested that WCJA was “transdenominational,” and I think that is an excellent way of characterizing it.

This is the closest I can come to describing why, oddly enough, attending a tiny liberal arts college in the Berkshire Mountains of northwest Massachusetts ended up being the best thing that has ever happened to my Jewish identity. WCJA is a very special place. It has given me experiences as diverse as having a long conversation with a man who, born Protestant, did a full Orthodox Jewish conversion and now runs the only Kosher farm in the Berkshires (which also strives to be sustainable and to raise its animals humanely) and planning and participating in a day trip to New York City to learn about American Jewish cultural history. Participating in the Jewish community at WCJA has broadened my understanding, experience, and love of Judaism.

Most interestingly, my lack of serious concern about what kind of Jewish involvement would be available at the college I attended actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise: had I realized that not every place I ever went would be as Jewish as Pittsburgh, and as a result decided to seek out a college with a Jewish community that was (on paper) larger than Williams’s, I may very well have never stepped out of a Reform service and discovered the beauty of Jewish customs different from the ones I grew up with. I may have never lived in a suite and become best friends with one woman who is shomer Shabbat and another who has a constantly evolving relationship with kashrut, or learned the beautiful melodies of prayers that my Reform synagogue never did. Williams may not have more than a couple hundred Jewish students, and we may not have multiple different services suited to each person’s particular preference, but we have so much vibrancy, so much friendship, and so much ruach. I truly believe that every kind of Jew can find the Williams College Jewish community to be a comfortable home; I should know, because I feel like a different kind of Jew every day now.