Campus caters to observant Jewish students as their enrollment rises
Marko Georgiev, Mct
HACKENSACK, N.J. — Jewish enrollment at Rutgers University's flagship campus is estimated to have jumped by more than 20 percent last year, due in no small part to the growth of services on campus that are particularly appealing to Orthodox students, community leaders say.
The word has gotten out — at Jewish day schools in — that Rutgers' New Brunswick, N.J., campus has religious services and social events, kosher meals and a Jewish dormitory in the heart of the campus. It even has an eruv — a boundary, often strung from utility poles, that allows observant Jews to carry items such as keys and books that are normally off limits during religious observances.
The flourishing community life has made the school a destination for Jews, and has given the state university one of the largest Jewish populations of any campus in the country. With an estimated 7,400 Jewish students, Rutgers has more Jews than such traditional Jewish strongholds as Brandeis and Yeshiva universities, said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel.
"It was a big consideration in making me want to go here," said Jeremy Tuch, a graduate of the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, N.J., who is studying engineering at Rutgers. "They welcome you here with open arms."
Tuch takes his meals at the kosher kitchen at Rutgers Chabad House and attends Friday services there or at Hillel, another Jewish organization on campus.
Religious and cultural groups exist on every college campus in New Jersey, one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse areas of the country. But at the state university, the groups have proliferated and they are flourishing.
"There has definitely been an increased interest in the religious and cultural groups," said Kerri Willson, director of student involvement. "Students have a renewed interest in exploring the spiritual aspect as they are growing up and coming to college. The groups provide a forum for that kind of exploration."
There are 43 religious and cultural groups on the New Brunswick/Piscataway campus that receive support from student fees. Among them are such organizations as the Atheist Student Alliance and the Vivekananda Youth Group, which promotes Hindu prayer. There are more than 25 chaplaincies on campus as well.
Like the Jewish groups, the Muslim Student Association is growing too — there are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Muslim students on campus, and private efforts are under way to build a Center for Islamic Life that would offer prayer space, a Halal kitchen and counseling.
Chabad, a missionary Hasidic movement, and Hillel, a worldwide campus-based foundation for Jewish life, have staked out prominent locations on campus and have major expansions in the works.
"We're sort of a little island in this big ocean of the university," said Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, executive director of Rutgers Chabad. The group started on campus more than three decades ago to reach out to Jewish students who were not particularly religious, he said. As it grew, its services began attracting more observant students who came to campus because of the Jewish life.
"When I started here (in 1978) maybe you'd see one yarmulke on College Avenue," Carlebach said. "Now we have Talmudic study. ... Rutgers is now on the map for Orthodox day schools."
Tuch, from Teaneck, said he regularly touts the university to prospective students from his high school. "It makes me happy that I can advertise the nice Jewish life here," said Tuch, a Devils hockey fan who had the team's logo knitted into his yarmulke.
"A lot of people don't know about the Jewish life here at Rutgers, but the word is getting out," said Elan Sherman of Englewood, a graduate of the Frisch School in Paramus, N.J., who is a junior majoring in history at Rutgers.
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