Campus Jews turn to Hillel, not city synagogues

Grace Johnson

It’s no secret that both Northwestern and Evanston have strong Jewish communities, but they rarely interact, campus Jews said.

Many Jewish students said they have their spiritual needs met at Fiedler Hillel, 629 Foster St., or the Tannenbaum Chabad House, 2014 Orrington, but some expressed interest in building a greater relationship with Evanston synagogues.

“It’s weird to not have contact with people who are older or younger than you,” Jason Gutstein said.

The reason some students don’t reach out to community synagogues may be that they feel too strong of a connection with their hometown congregation, the Weinberg senior added.

“When you are part of a synagogue, you participate throughout the year, and you really have a strong relationship with it,” Gutstein said. “But the problem is, in my case, I’m 2000 miles away and if I went to a new synagogue, it would be hard to break away from my old one.”

Stefani Weiss, a SESP junior and longtime Evanston resident, has the unique distinction of being a part of two Jewish communities at once. Not only is Weiss still active at her home synagogue, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, 303 Dodge Ave., but she is also active at Hillel as part of the Hillel Leadership Council. As part of these two different communities of Judaism, Weiss noted the differences.

“At Northwestern, Jews can find many different outlets to be Jewish through many different groups,” she said. “Whereas within a congregation, the centers of Jewish life are the home and the congregation.”

Weiss said she wants to bridge the gap.

“As someone who comes from the area and is very attached to my home congregation, I bring students with me,” she said. “Hillel is working hard to establish a greater connection.”

The lack of a strong relationship might be due to how Hillel developed on college campuses across the country.

“Hillel is ubiquitous on college campuses,” Gutstein said. “As a result, not a lot of synagogues see college students come through their doors. You get guided through your high school years and then come back when you’re starting a family.”

NU Hillel Rabbi Josh Feigelson said most Jewish students just aren’t looking for that interaction.

“(They) want to socialize with students their own age,” he said.

But some students said they do yearn for a greater connection, on more than just a religious observance level.

“It would be really cool to have more outreach from the synagogue and students as well, rather than with services, more with education programs, social justice initiatives or community service,” Gutstein said. “They’re not the things you normally think about with a synagogue, but they would work best.”

Chabad is unique in that it encompasses both adult and student members, said the director, Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein.

“Within our own center, we have our community as well,” he said. “There has always been a good relationship between all of our members.”

Feigelson said he’s willing to work with students who want a larger connection with Evanston-area synagogues.

“Virtually everything here is student-driven,” he said. “The staff is here to respond to and support student initiatives.”

Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation is also willing to work with students who wish to be more active in their community, said Dina April, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation’s membership and programming director.

“It’s a matter of people coming forward and saying they have an interest,” she said. “Reconstructionist philosophy is about a bottom-up approach.”

Despite the current lack of interaction between the NU and Evanston Jewish communities, Weiss said the NU community is strong and varied.

“There are so many students here who come from different lifestyles,” she said. “Everybody works together.”

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