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Sacred Space

Jewish students can find their faith at a Christian college.

by Gustavo Arellano

October 25, 2001 | 8:00 pm

The Charles and Nora Hester board room at Chapman University is a typical corporate meeting area; large and devoid of anything sacred, it is located on the second floor of the school's main building. Outside the room is a display that highlights the life of Christian philanthropist Albert Schweitzer.

Nothing indicates that this environment is conducive to a strong campus Jewish life, let alone its existence. Yet on a Friday night, while most of their peers were at frat parties or dates, members of Chapman's Jewish community were celebrating a Shabbat dinner, singing and praying in Hebrew (with a liberal sprinkling of English) in this very room.

That a Shabbat dinner is held at a Christian college with full administrative support, and that more than half of the 50-plus people in attendance are non-Jews, is testament to both Chapman's unusual religious outlook and its Jewish students' resolve to make themselves a visible presence at the university. Though Jewish students remain a tiny majority (about 2 percent of a student population of more than 4,000), Jewish life is thriving at Chapman.

The university is best-known in the Jewish community for Dr. Marilyn Harran, chair of the religion department and director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. The concept of a Christian university harboring a program dedicated toward a subject essential to the Jewish experience seems perplexing; the reality is explained by the school's emphatically non-dogmatic theological view and its relationship with Jewish affairs. Chapman is associated with the Disciples of Christ, a Christian denomination that sees religious diversity as a core tenet and which is at the forefront in joint Christian-Jewish dialogue efforts. From this rich pluralistic background, the school has constructed an educational experience that supports various traditions and allows them to flourish.

"I think that Chapman's education leaves students incapable of being intolerant," says Katie Vliestrla, student director of spiritual programming and head of the school's Interfaith Council. "College in general is a great environment, and people want to learn about other people. Chapman encourages that."

Such idealism doesn't always translate into an awareness of Jewish issues or the needs of Jewish students. The school's Hillel chapter was not recognized by the student government -- and therefore, not eligible for funds -- and for many years, teachers would question students for missing classes during Jewish holidays; even the administration made embarrassing mistakes. "I remember the first year I started, the school had scheduled homecoming the same day as Yom Kippur," recalled Ron Farmer, dean of the school's All-Faiths Chapel. "That weekend, I received phone calls from Jewish alumni upset that the school was so ignorant. You can reschedule homecoming; you can't reschedule Yom Kippur."

Aware that some people might not know the difference between "Shema" and shalom, this year's Hillel will focus on education and inclusiveness to combat ignorance.

The group tries to host an environment that allows Jewish students to maintain a sense of community and be inclusive in order to teach non-Jews about Jewish life. "We want Hillel to be the Jewish resource on campus for everyone," says Debbie Shapiro, program director for Hillel of Orange County and Chapman Hillel's adviser. "If we advertise an event saying, 'Are you Jewish? Then come to Hillel,' non-Jews will feel excluded and maybe even resentful. But by holding 'everyone's invited' events like Shabbat dinners, people become educated and interact on a personal basis."

In addition to being the conduit for those wanting to know more about Judaism, Chapman Hillel is also a source of support for Jewish students on a campus where they are a distinct minority, not only in numbers but also in lifestyle. Such support is crucial toward maintaining and even creating a Jewish identity, says sophomore Sarah Goldshlack, the religious and cultural chair of Hillel. "There's not many Jews in the area of Michigan where I come from. Hillel is a great way of solidifying identity where maybe it wasn't completely there before."

The group has many events planned throughout the year. On Nov. 15, a speaker from the Israeli Consulate will address the school on Israel's contribution in the new War on Terrorism. Hillel will also host social events that encourage interaction with Jews and non-Jews, such as bonfires, more dinners and a "mystery tour" club, a new program that Hillel president Debra Yaghouby giddily introduced to curious eaters at the Shabbat dinner. "I feel like there's so many Jews here at Chapman, but we can't find each other because of a lack of space or events," says Yaghouby, a junior. "Things like Shabbat dinners bring us together."

With the support of an understanding university, an enthusiastic membership and Shapiro -- who says, "It's empowering to see the leadership skills and tendencies of Jewish students surface" -- Chapman's Jewish community is taking its rightful place as an integral part of the college's campus life.

"It's important to be known," Yaghouby says. "Now that we're getting bigger and more united, we drop everything for our events and for each other. We see Hillel -- and what it means -- as our child."

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