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Exploring Judaism at Macalester

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Jews from across the country find a community at Macalester College in St. Paul

By MAXWELL KENT

Alana Schreiber, a native New Yorker, found that assimilating to life at Macalester College involved questions of identity and ethnicity in a city with a much smaller Jewish population than her hometown.

Zoe Beriss (left) and Alana Schreiber (Photo: Courtesy of Schreiber/Facebook)

“Being from New York, no one sticks out,” she comments, regarding being Jewish in the Big Apple. “There is so much going on that you can’t stick out. But so many people here did not grow up around Jews; so when I got here it was the first time I felt like I stuck out, because I was the outspoken, funny, Jewish girl.”

Despite being at a school which prioritizes multiculturalism, Schreiber says she still has experienced micro-aggressions both on and off campus. She chalks up the incidents to students being unfamiliar with Jewish culture.

“One time I was at a party and a guy came up to me and told me, ‘You’re pretty for a Jew.’ Another time I was counting quarters for the bus and someone was like ‘oh, you’re so Jewish.’”

She adds, “I think a lot of people who did not grow up around Jews kind of look at it like the Seinfeld show in the ‘anti-dentite’ episode and they’re like, ‘oh you joke about it, I can joke about it too.’”

(In the Seinfeld episode, Kramer rebukes Jerry for making an anti-dentist comment: “You think dentists are so different from me and you? They came to this country just like everybody else, in search of a dream.”)

At the esteemed private liberal arts college in St. Paul, around 85 percent of students are from outside of Minnesota. Likewise, the school’s Jewish community reflects a range of backgrounds, which leads to varying perspectives on being a Jew on the campus.

Some members of Macalester’s Jewish Organization (MJO) come from congregations in the Twin Cities; but the student-led organization has largely been a gathering place for Jews from all over the country, and the world, to share stories, celebrate holidays and discuss issues.

And the Jewish community at Macalester is not composed completely of students from multicultural cities like New York, where religious diversity prevails. For some, like Zoe Beriss, a junior who grew up in New Orleans, the Macalester community seems relatively more educated and understanding towards Jews.

“Compared to my hometown and growing up being like, one out of five Jews in my entire, 900-person high school, [Macalester] is a big change for me,” Beriss says. “The majority of people I met [at Macalester] didn’t ask dumb or uninformed questions about me being Jewish because, for the most part, they had grown up around Jews and kind of got it. At home though, I definitely felt like a ‘token Jewish friend’ and frequently met people who had never met anyone Jewish before.”

Unlike Schreiber, Beriss explained how that greater understanding from the Macalester community has led to comparably fewer discriminatory remarks or microaggressions than she faced back home.

“I definitely don’t think there have been any problems…. I think, honestly, any ignorance or anti-Semitic remarks I’ve ever faced have probably been in the South, which isn’t super surprising,” remarks Beriss.

Coming from opposite ends of the spectrum, as far as their home communities, Beriss and Schreiber agreed that the MJO community provides a safe and welcoming environment in which students can openly discuss personal or communal issues.

MJO is one of the college’s two Jewish student organizations that convenes in Macalester’s cultural house on campus. The interdenominational group plans events surrounding the Jewish holidays as well as cultural, volunteer and entertainment activities. Although they lack the Hebrew House they once had many years ago, Beriss applauds the effort by the group to mediate itself rather than having an adult run the show.

“I feel like I have a real voice in the community itself, and it’s not just led by the adults in the room — the students get a real say in what we do and what we want,” Beriss says.

This self-advocacy has allowed them to openly discuss issues members feel strongly about. And Beriss believes this practice could be extended to include other groups on campus.

“I think MJO could stand to have a conversation with J Street,” she comments. “I don’t think we’ve really had many conversations about politics and the Israel-Palestine debate.”

Schreiber adds that because of the nature of the group on campus and Judaism in society, MJO tends to focus on different subjects than do other religious groups on campus.

“Whereas the [Macalester] Christian Fellowship may gather to sing hymnals or read bible passages, one of the major things about MJO is that because we are minority group, the dialogue that we focus on tends to be focused on the identity complex, rather than practicing traditions or studying scripture,” Schreiber explains.

And she points out that despite the MJO’s presence on campus, not all Jews at Macalester identify with the group.

“I think there is a problem because people think that we represent the Jewish opinion on campus. We do not. MJO is not at all indicative of all Macalester Jews,” she says.

Louis Hunter (Photo: Courtesy of Hunter/Facebook)

Louis Hunter, a Mac senior from Seattle, hopes the group can continue the legacy of offering safe spaces for Jews to convene, but that intragroup issues must be addressed in order to build a stronger organization.

“It seems like we have sort of have a legitimacy problem because of inconsistent elections of officers,” comments Hunter. “Our leadership officers were groomed by our previous leaders and some people started getting pissed off about that.”

Hunter also said there should be more effort by MJO to go forth in the community and take tangible action towards helping others.

“We would do well to be less sedentary. I personally would like to see more human rights-oriented advocacy that MJO could do,” he remarks. “I just feel like actions speaks louder than words.”

With the retirement of its former Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Barry Cytron, Macalester will be welcoming Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, former assistant rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation, as its new Jewish chaplain.

Hunter, who will be graduating next spring, says Kippley-Ogman is exactly the type of chaplain Jews at Macalester need for the future:

“I think she will be able to help to both process all the anger and confusion a lot of us are feeling about the world we live in today. I have not been able to asses it quite yet, but I have faith she will help channel us into positive outlets.”

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Maxwell Kent is the Jewish World’s editorial intern this summer. He will be a sophomore at Macalester College.

(American Jewish World, 6.30.17)

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