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Orthodox alumni mark Princeton milestone

Yavneh House, haven for camaraderie and kosher meals, turns 50

 
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Rabbi Daniel Greer (class of ’60) shares his experiences as one of the first Orthodox Jews to attend Princeton at the Yavneh 50th anniversary celebration. Photos by Bina Peltz

More than 100 Princeton University alumni and current students gathered on Feb. 12 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yavneh House, the university’s Orthodox Jewish student organization.

Participants in the daylong celebration reminisced about the challenges of forming a Yavneh chapter at Princeton in the early 1960s, at a time when a “silent quota” on Jews was easing at the Ivy Leagues.

And they celebrated the efforts to launch a Princeton chapter of Yavneh National Religious Students Association, to provide kosher food, Torah studies, prayer services, and social opportunities.

Rabbi Daniel Greer, who now heads the Yeshiva of New Haven in Connecticut, was one of the first Orthodox Jews to enroll at Princeton as an undergraduate in 1956. In a panel titled “Yavneh: From Hippies to iPhones,” Greer discussed his struggle to maintain his observant lifestyle on a campus made up of only 8 percent Jews, many of whom he described as “closet Jews.”

Even the Hillel rabbi who served as chaplain at the time masked his Jewishness by concealing the mezuza in his office and opting for the title of “Mr.” rather than “Rabbi” on his nameplate, Greer told NJJN, echoing recollections of many of the alumni present.

“The Hillel rabbi told me that after three days on campus I would be eating t’reif,” said Greer. “I was the second Jewish student to go through the school and keep kosher. Many students came there kosher but didn’t finish that way.”

At Princeton, Greer wore the same Ivy League “Joe College uniform” as his peers — “tan chinos with a buckle in the back, a blue Oxford shirt, and a heather-green Shetland sweater,” he told the audience in the multipurpose room of the Frist Student Center.

But unlike Greer’s peers who gathered in the social clubs, mealtimes were spent in his room, where he heated up food his mother packed when he went home to New York City for each Shabbat. He often shared meals with another observant student, Abe Kaufman, who became Yavneh’s first president.

“The main issue as an Orthodox student at Princeton was the loneliness, which was almost palpable,” Greer recalled. “I got the physical and academic sustenance, but I was sorely lacking in emotional sustenance.”

Kaufman, a resident of Queens, also addressed the audience. “I was totally out of my element in the WASPy social scene of Princeton,” he said. “Outside of New York, words like kosher, chutzpah, and mazel were unknown. Being Jewish was like an inside joke. The idea of starting a kosher eatery there was unheard of.”

The creation of Yavneh and its kosher dining facility slowly began to change the face of Judaism on campus, said Dr. Rivkah Blau of New York City, in her opening remarks prior to the first panel.

Blau, a graduate of Barnard and Columbia, was one of the founders of Yavneh National Religious Students Association. She recalled how her father, the late Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, heard about the difficulties Greer and Kaufman were facing. He called Milton Levy, owner of Levy Brothers, the former Elizabeth department store. Levy himself had undergone similar difficulties as a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s.

“He told me to consult with my mother and make a list of everything that would be necessary for a kosher home and to bring the list to his store,” said Blau, who teaches English at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck. “When I came to his office, he handed me his charge card and told me to buy everything on the list. My father provided siddurim and a sefer Torah.”

Yavneh first met at a rental home on Olden Street, later moving to Wiggins Street. In 1971 a kosher dining hall was formed on campus in Stevenson Hall. In 1993 Yavneh moved to the university’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel.

Today, Yavneh offers kosher food, daily prayer services, student-led study sessions, and Talmud classes taught by Blau’s husband, Rabbi Yosef Blau, director of religious guidance at Yeshiva University, and her brother, JEC dean Rabbi Elazar Mayer Teitz.

Jews currently make up 13 percent of Princeton’s 5,000 undergraduates. Among them is Avital Hazony, a senior from Jerusalem who organized Yavneh’s anniversary event. Hazony’s parents met through Yavneh, and married in Princeton, where Hazony was born.

“Today we are showing our deepest gratitude to alumni who made Yavneh what it is today, enabling us to live and learn here the way we do now,” Hazony said in the opening remarks. “It used to be very hard to be Jewish and observant at Princeton. People don’t realize what opportunities for Jewish students there are here now.”

For alumna Suzanne Last Stone of New York City, if it weren’t for Yavneh, her Orthodox parents would not have allowed her to enroll at Princeton. A professor of Jewish law at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, Last Stone was a member of the second class of women admitted to Princeton in 1970.

“Princeton was the forming ground for my professional life. It allowed me free rein to study Judaic studies and take my senior year at Hebrew University,” she said. “It gave me the sense that Jewish texts and ideas were enormously valued for public intellectual life.”

Highland Park resident Barry Levinson, who graduated in 1977, said he enjoyed reminiscing with Yavneh friends at the anniversary.

“I was a ‘Conservadox’ Jew on the path to becoming Orthodox, so it was very important to me to have a Jewish community,” Levinson told NJJN. “It was transparent that one could be an Orthodox Jew and be welcome at an Ivy League college.”

Panelist Marilyn Berger Schlachter, a child therapist from University Hills, Ohio, described her Princeton years as transformational. She was among the first class of 90 women admitted to the school in 1969 and was there when the kosher dining hall opened.

“It was very exciting to be there at that time and to help build the Orthodox community,” she said. “Princeton has certainly transformed from a few Jewish students eating in their rooms to a full-fledged Orthodox community.”

The New Jersey Jewish News

Jill Garbi is a contributing writer to The New Jersey Jewish News

 
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

Rivkah Teitz Blau posted 19 Feb 2012 at 09:05 AM

In Jill Garbi’s excellent account of the celebration of 50 years of kosher dining at Princeton, please note one correction:  Rabbi Yosef Blau and Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz taught Talmud there in the 1960s and ‘70s; today the JLI couple, Sara and Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, and the students arrange classes.

 

‘It’s valuable to hear both sides’

Ridgewood man discusses Israeli, Palestinian narratives

Jonathan Emont — a 2008 graduate of Ridgewood High School who celebrated his bar mitzvah at the town’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center — always has felt a deep attachment to the state of Israel.

Still, the 23-year-old said, he never expected that country to be at the center of his professional life.

Things changed, however, when the recent Swarthmore College graduate went to Israel on a tour the America-Israel Friendship League offered to young journalists.

“I did journalism in college,” he said, explaining that although he majored in history, he also was the editor of Swarthmore’s Daily Gazette.

 

Walling off, reaching out

Teaneck shul offers discussion of Women of the Wall

It is not an understatement to say that the saga of Women of the Wall is a metaphor for much of the struggle between tradition and change in Israel.

Founded 25 years ago by a group of Israeli and non-Israeli women whose religious affiliations ran from Orthodox to Reform, it has been a flashpoint for the fight for pluralism in Israel, as one side would define it, or the obligation to hold onto God-given mandates on the other.

As its members and supporters fought for the right to hold services in the women’s section, raising their voices in prayer, and later to wear tallitot and read from sifrei Torah, and as their opponents grew increasingly violent in response, it came to define questions of synagogue versus state and showcase both the strengths and the flaws of Israel’s extraordinary parliamentary system. It also highlighted rifts between American and Israeli Jews.

 

Yet more Pew

Local rabbis talk more about implications of look at American Jews

The Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, released last October, really is the gift that keeps on giving.

As much as the Jewish community deplores the study’s findings, it seems to exert a magnetic pull over us, as if it were the moon and we the obedient tides. We can’t seem to stop talking about it. (Of course, part of that appeal is the license it gives us to talk, once again, about ourselves. We fascinate ourselves endlessly.)

That is why we found ourselves at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last Wednesday night, with the next in the seemingly endless series of snow-and-ice storms just a few hours away, discussing the Pew study yet again.

 

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Israeli band full of New Jersey locals hopes to tour U.S.

If a crowd-funding appeal is successful, the Israeli band G-Nome Project is coming to the United States.

This is not the scientific kind of genome project having to do with decoding DNA, but a musical project launched by four young expatriates — two of them from Teaneck.

It’s also a kind of chesed project. The band’s proposed 10-city “Giving Tour” aims to combine nightly gigs with days of good deeds such as visiting nursing homes and working in a soup kitchen.

This unusual twist was inspired by drummer Chemy Soibelman’s volunteering with Israeli children suffering from cancer.

 

Less is more

Moriah to institute new tuition affordability program

Good news for the middle class — and for Jewish day school affordability.

The Moriah School in Englewood, which runs from prekindergarten through eighth grade, has announced a new tuition affordability program, which will cut tuition for parents making as much as $360,000 a year.

Full tuition at the school ranges from $12,000 for kindergarten to $15,425 for middle school. (The prekindergarten program is not eligible for the tuition breaks.)

“We’ve been talking, as a board and as a community, about tuition affordability and the tuition crisis for years,” said Evan Sohn, the school’s president. “We decided this was the year we were going to address that issue.”

 

Scrolling through Jewish art

Local exhibit looks at text and images in old and new ways

The English letters that Harriet Fincke of Ridgewood learned when she was young are straightforward symbols that combine to form words, just as they are for everyone else.

But Hebrew letters — ah, they are something else again. “They always seemed kind of solid,” she said. “They seemed more like things,” objects in their own right, opaque. “It’s both the meaning and the look, and the relationship between them,” she said.

Those letters were a foundation part of her childhood — she went all the way through school at the Yeshiva of Flatbush. “I’d always had a kind of richly ambivalent relationship with my religious upbringing, and with the text,” she said.

 
 
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