Vassar Today

Jewish Life on Campus

By Samantha Soper '91

As you push open the door to the Bayit, you are greeted by an animated "Hello!" This welcoming voice belongs to Rabbi Rena Blumenthal, Vassar's new full-time adviser to Jewish students. Despite her close-cropped hair and small frame, Blumenthal displays a big presence and sparkling enthusiasm the moment you meet her. It is this energy that has propelled Blumenthal to accomplish some important, vital steps in reinvigorating the Jewish community on campus.


A portrait photo of Rabbi Blumenthal
A portrait photo of Rabbi Blumenthal

Officially, Blumenthal's title is the Rose and Irving Rachlin Adviser to Jewish Students. In the early 1990s, Paula Rachlin Gottesman '56 established a fund in honor of her parents to strengthen the support of Jewish religious and cultural life on campus. For many years, the position was part time, but in 2001 the Gottesmans increased the fund to create the now full-time position. "With Rena there is more stability," said Samuel Speers, director of religious and spiritual life. Although the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) is one of the strongest religious groups on campus, he said, there was always turnover as leaders graduated. Now there are more underclassmen involved - partly because Blumenthal has raised the level of Jewish participation on campus overall.

Blumenthal is modest when describing her first year, saying she has focused on restoring the Bayit, Vassar's home of Jewish campus life, and improving community outreach. To engage the on-campus and local Jewish communities, Blumenthal meets monthly with local rabbis at the nearby Jewish Community Center, attends VJU board meetings, and sits down with the president of the VJU once a week. This has given her the opportunity to observe, and grow to understand the Vassar and local Jewish communities and strengthen relationships.

Also during her short tenure, Blumenthal and four student assistants cleared out and cleaned up the Bayit from top to bottom, Buildings & Grounds landscaped the front yard, and Campus Security installed card-swipe access on the front door. The improvements to the physical space have created a more vibrant and appealing center, and have succeeded in "lifting the morale of the Jewish students who use the house," said Blumenthal.

A Vassar student stands over a stove, cooking vegetables in a pan
A Vassar student stands over a stove, cooking vegetables in a pan

Freshamn Matt Tyson prepares a kosher meal to serve after Friday night services.

Located at 51 Collegeview Avenue, behind the All-Campus Dining Center and just beyond North Gate, the Bayit has always been a place for Jewish students to convene for worship, community, or programming. "The Bayit is not only home to our services and weekly [VJU] board meetings, but also to Israeli dancing, a Shabbaton (weekend retreat) for Jewish college students in the area, Purim spiels, ice cream socials...or whatever other program someone thinks up next," said junior and VJU vice-president Sasha Swartzman. But being off-campus, albeit by only a few yards, has created a barrier. "By crossing the street you feel that you are consciously going there to be Jewish," said Susannah Howland '03, a former president of the VJU who sat on the search committee that hired Blumenthal.

After reviewing more than 50 applications, the search committee of faculty, administrators, and students chose Blumenthal. She holds a B.A. in psychology and religion from Barnard College and an M.A. in clinical psychology from Fordham University. Most recently, she graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. Blumenthal previously worked as a psychologist in schools and mental health clinics in New York and Jerusalem and served as a student rabbi to congregations in Pennsylvania and Florida.

Blumenthal's position falls under the purview of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Director Speers believes that in order for Jewish life to thrive and grow, it needs to be connected to the overall mission of the office - which, he says, "works to make religious and spiritual commitments and practice part of a student's education while at Vassar." Speers continued, "Students often confront critical questions: What does it mean to come from a different background to a secular culture? What do I want to carry forward to my college life and beyond? These questions are sometimes overlooked at institutions of higher education. We want to address how people are formed by a tradition and in what context. We want to help students integrate these questions with ones that arise in the classroom, to understand their interior life." Speers went on to state that "the college is committed to saying that these questions of practice and commitment deserve the college's quality intellectual attention and resources. Religion is often looked at as extracurricular. The creation of this full-time position points to the ways that the extracurricular model is not fully adequate for students - that we need professional help to make specific questions of identity formation and life commitment fully cocurricular." In order to work toward fulfilling the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life's mission, Blumenthal is strengthening her relationships with the Jewish student leadership on campus and reaching out to Jewish and non-Jewish students alike. "Rena is gifted at knowing when to provide leadership or guidance to students and when to provide space so that students can take ownership," said Speers.

One student looks on while another seasons a pan of food
One student looks on while another seasons a pan of food

Brenna Koch '05 spices up the vegetarian shepherd's pie as Sara Egan '07 looks on.

Every Friday afternoon, the Bayit's student assistants cook for upwards of 20 students. "There has been a wonderful response to the Friday night services and dinner," said Blumenthal. "There is a core group of students who attend every Friday, but there is always somebody new." Swartzman looks forward to each Friday dinner, "Shabbat services just wouldn't be the same without the home-cooked Kosher meal that follows." In addition to cooking duties, Sara Egan '07, Matt Tyson '07, and Brenna Koch '05 help coordinate programs, such as the December conclave that brought the Jewish communities at SUNY New Paltz, the Culinary Institute of America, Bard College, and Marist College together for a weekend of programming and an art exhibit titled Self and Community, which featured works by members of the Vassar community exploring issues of personal and communal identity.

One of Blumenthal's main goals for year two is to strengthen the social action aspect of the Bayit's general programming. The VJU has started working with Hudson River Housing to create a partnership that Blumenthal hopes will get students involved in the wider community. She will also offer support to other Jewish groups on campus, such as the Jewish a cappella group Yafeyfiyah and the literary magazine Ra'ashan. "Rena has been a smash hit," Swartzman raved, "It's been so important to have someone working with us full time, and her religious and spiritual guidance is invaluable at our weekly VJU meetings as well as during holidays. But more importantly, she's great to have around. You can tell that Rena really cares about Jewish life on campus. Her knowledge and enthusiasm enriches our services, programs, and lives as Jewish students at Vassar."



Around Campus

This fall, the Jewish Studies Program celebrates its fifth year as a multidisciplinary major at Vassar. Academic departments such as history, religion, literature, anthropology, Germanic studies, political science, English, classics, and psychology make up the Jewish Studies Program. And every year the Jewish Studies Program sponsors a three-day seminar to educate faculty on topics connected with Jewish studies. Program Director and Professor of Religion Deborah Dash Moore works closely with Suzanne Rubenstein Fishman '55 and her husband Larry, who endowed the faculty seminar and were instrumental in getting the program off the ground in 2000. In May, University of Michigan Professor of English and Judaic Studies Anita Norich was the seminar leader on the topic of Yiddish modernism and its discontents. In addition, this year the program offered a new course called "Zionisms." Team taught by Professor of Hispanic Studies Andrew Bush and Associate Professor of Political Science Andrew Davison, the course examines the different perspectives of conflicting and contested theories of Zionism.

As the Jewish Studies Program continues to develop, other campus changes are also enhancing Jewish life on campus. The All-Campus Dining Center has introduced kosher dining, and next year, Terrace Apartment 7 will be designated as a kosher residence.