Being Jewish at Bates

Julia Raboy

When I began my college search, my mom and I spent countless hours scouring websites like College Confidential and Niche, as most high school students do. My mother and I, however, were not searching for which potential schools had programs that piqued my interest, were the right size, or in an optimal location, but rather which of the schools on my list had the most “comfortable” Jewish population. Growing up in Westchester, New York, I was raised with a false perception of what it means to be Jewish in today’s world. I never had school on the High Holidays, I never had to explain to a non-Jewish friend what Hanukkah was, and keeping kosher for Passover meant passing a box of Matzah around the cafeteria lunch table.
As it came time to narrow down the list of colleges to which I would apply, my parents stressed the importance of having a vibrant Jewish community at whatever school I wound up at. I took my parent’s constant admonishments as unnecessary nagging and decided that I wasn’t “religious,” so whatever they said about having a sizable Jewish community would not be important. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that for me, Judaism is far more than a religion. I built a life for myself throughout high school that revolved around my Jewish identity. From being on the board of my Jewish youth group, BBYO, to working with Holocaust Survivors and participating in a Jewish feminist fellowship, Judaism was at the center of my existence in my community.
When I decided to come to Bates, my parents were supportive of my decision and agreed that Bates was the right fit for me, but they grew anxious about Bates’ relatively small Jewish population. Bates is home to a notoriously WASPy student body, which I didn’t think would send me into culture shock…until it did. I found myself interacting with people who had never met another Jewish person before, and new friends would comment on or ask questions about the Star of David necklace I wear every day. As the year continued and I became more acclimated to Bates and my new surroundings, I felt a void begin to grow inside me. So much of my life had been dedicated to Judaism, and I felt lost without it.
Reflecting on my first year, I can safely say I have had more existential crises over the past few months than most people do in their lifetime. Looking back, I can attribute the hours I’ve spent dwelling on my “purpose” to the fact that what I considered to be my purpose for most of my life did not fit into my new life at Bates. I no longer spent my time interviewing Holocaust survivors and advocating for human rights and genocide education. I no longer spent hours each week with my BBYO board members planning community building activities. I found myself struggling to find my place at Bates, and it took me a fair amount of reflection to realize that I felt lost because I felt foreign.
This past year has probably been the most difficult of my life for more reasons than being Jewish in a community where Jews are not the majority, but I do not regret choosing to come to Bates. While Bates does not present an accurate representation of the “real world,” it is a vastly different representation than the one I grew up with, and I am thankful to have been exposed to it. I have to give my parents credit for expressing their concerns, and I am able to recognize now that they probably know me better than I know myself, but I am also glad I didn’t listen to them. Had I taken their anxieties to heart and chosen a school known for its Jewish population, I likely wouldn’t have learned what coming to Bates has taught me about myself. I still feel a little lost without my “Jewish homies” (as my mom likes to put it), and I don’t have the resources to continue the kinds of extracurricular activities as readily available in Lewiston as I had in Westchester. I have learned, however, that I don’t have to look at these things as barriers and cause for spending the entire night awake contemplating meaning in my life. Instead, I can use them to propel myself to work harder to learn about new cultures I am exposed to at Bates and teach my friends about my Jewish culture.