" Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam ," they prayed in Hebrew as they lit the ceremonial Shabbat candles and pronounced blessings over fresh-baked challah bread and kosher grape juice. "Praised are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe."
Each Friday night this semester, members of the BC chapter of the national Jewish student organization Hillel have met to light the Shabbat candles, in a ritual that has been part of a flowering of activity among Boston College's small but thriving Jewish community.
Members of the Boston College Hillel participate in a recent lighting of the ceremonial Shabbat candles to mark the Jewish Sabbath. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
BC Hillel in recent months has sponsored a Jewish music festival on campus, and a lecture on Catholic-Jewish relations by Rabbi Emeritus Samuel Chiel of Temple Emanuel of Newton and newly-named Auxiliary Bishop Richard Malone of the Boston Archdiocese. A Sabbath gathering for faculty and students was held this past Friday in O'Connell House, and yesterday, a "chocolate Seder" to introduce children to Passover tradition.
The Jewish student group has helped run a book drive for underprivileged children and dispatched volunteers weekly to a Brighton elderly-housing complex to tutor Russian immigrants in English. Three of its members traveled to Israel over winter break on a trip organized by the philanthropic United Jewish Committees.
In a region where such schools as Brandeis, Boston University, Harvard and Tufts claim thousands of the nation's brightest Jewish students, Boston College Hillel President Ari Shapiro,'01, has been chosen to preside over the New England board of the national Hillel organization.
BC Hillel members say their shared religious devotions and charitable work have helped them re-connect as Jews on a campus where only between 1 and 2 percent of students identify themselves as such.
Chapter Vice President Brianne Nadeau,'02, initiated the Friday night Shabbat observances this semester.
"We've tried very hard to create a sense of community," said the political science major from Grosse Pointe, Mich. "Obviously there aren't as many Jews on campus as Christians, because of the nature of the school. A lot of us don't have family nearby, and having Shabbat together is like having a family."
About 20 students are currently active in BC Hillel, which counts 89 students on its mailing list.
Some Hillel members noted they'd never been particularly observant Jews before arriving at BC, and a few confessed they still aren't. But they said the group has provided a welcome taste of heritage to those Jews - religious or secular - who have experienced culture shock as members of a distinct minority on campus.
Rick Klein, LSOE '02, for example, acknowledged he had not had a bar mitzvah and doesn't now attend synagogue. But here he was offering his dorm room as a site for lighting Shabbat candles and blessing bread and sparkling grape juice in commemoration of the temple sacrifices of old.
"It's my culture," said Klein, of Long Grove, Ill., who now serves as outreach coordinator for BC Hillel. "Where I grew up, in the suburbs of Chicago, most people in my high school were Jews. When I came here I realized how different everyone was."
Other group members echoed his sentiments. "The Jewish religion wasn't big in my life until I got to BC," said Nicole Magaline '02, an economics major from San Francisco who is now volunteer coordinator for BC Hillel and traveled recently to Israel in a program for Jewish student leaders. "The Jewish community here is so small, it's easy to get involved."
Sara Katz, '02, a communication major from Albuquerque, NM who was raised in Chicago, said she had attended Hebrew school and been involved in Jewish youth-group activities. "When I came to school, I let it go," she said. "But I felt the loss of a Jewish community I was used to having."
Shapiro said he hadn't been observant before arriving at BC, but the experience of being in the minority inspired him to explore more deeply his Jewish roots.
A biology major from Cleveland, Shapiro said he finds rites such as the Friday night Shabbat service convey "a sense of touching the past, of traditions transmitted by my ancestors through the generations."
This flourishing Jewish spirit on campus is welcomed by Assoc. Prof. Daniel Kirschner (Biology), founding violinist of a local klezmer band, the Boston Kleztet, which performs at the BC Arts Festival on April 27.
"It has been wonderful to find a receptive group of students who are rediscovering their Jewish heritage on a very traditional Catholic campus," Kirschner said. "They have discovered their own tradition. To have healthy diversity, you have to have a healthy minority that's proud of its heritage and practices it."
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