In September 2019, I spent my first Shabbat at Princeton University. After a couple of rookie travel hiccups, including stranding myself on a train platform for upwards of half an hour, I arrived on campus. I took in the beautiful views, learned more names and faces than I could remember, and admired the strength of the Jewish community, recognizing I would be happy there.
During and after the visit, I controlled my enthusiasm. In the midst of college application season, I was wary of my excitement ending in disappointment if I were rejected, and it was difficult to spend that Shabbat fully in the moment. The reality of living and learning on an actual campus seemed like the distant future. Little did I know just how distant that future would be.
The next Shabbat I spent with the Princeton community was under very different circumstances. In the late spring of 2020, still months from the start of college, I joined a virtual Kabbalat Shabbat. This time, I was an incoming student — no longer a visitor, but an actual member of the community. And yet, as I stared at the array of Zoom boxes, recognizing only a few faces, the community felt far away.
I had anticipated feeling more enthusiastic about the Jewish campus experience once I was accepted to college. Instead, I worried that the pandemic would be a barrier to college Jewish life, and that any experience I would have virtually would pale in comparison to a traditional in-person experience. It took time, but I eventually learned that even remotely, it was possible to engage meaningfully with, and become a part of, the Jewish community.
My first Jewish experience as a new college student was, appropriately, welcoming in the New Year. At the beginning of the semester, I signed up to help lead virtual High Holiday services through the Center for Jewish Life (CJL). With the assistance of CJL staff members, a few older students, and Joey Weisenberg’s master classes in Jewish song, I learned how to lead a part of the Rosh Hashanah service. Between online classes, I would pull out my siddur and practice my section repeatedly, ensuring I was prepared.
I had no prior experience leading services and had never interacted with most of the people who would attend the Zooms; leading prayers on Rosh Hashanah would be how I introduced myself to many community members for the first time. On the Jewish New Year, I donned a white dress and tallit and adjusted the webcam and microphone. My voice shook a bit as I began to lead; I was anxious I would make mistakes. But as I continued, I felt the power of a scattered community creating a holy space, gained confidence, and began to feel a sense of belonging.
As the semester continued, I looked forward to online events. At Kabbalat Shabbat services, I grew comfortable joining conversations and progressively recognized more faces. Though I still felt a small sense of distance from the community, I recognized I wasn’t alone.
Perhaps the highlight of my Jewish involvement this semester was participating in a Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF) through the CJL. I came from a high school with a small Jewish population. At my Conservative synagogue, many other students shared Jewish stories similar to my own––they attended secular schools and their Jewish lives were centered at our synagogue. I looked forward to college as an opportunity to learn from Jewish students with different backgrounds.
JLF was my first chance to do so: My cohort included students from different class years and corners of campus. During our Wednesday afternoon meetings, compassion and open imaginations turned a flat screen into a virtual table. The profundity of our conversations, of our examinations of the self and the other, was strong enough to dissolve the separation between us. I finished the fellowship with new friends, new knowledge of Jewish texts and Jewish religion, and new outlooks.
This past semester has not, by any means, been ideal. At moments, I’ve felt isolated and overwhelmed trying to navigate college from my bedroom, but these are feelings I expected and understood. Jewish life has been very navigable, although now and then, I’ve definitely felt confused — I’m still trying to understand the frequent references to the various kitchen gadgets at the CJL, and I answered a total of zero questions about Princeton Jewish life correctly when I competed in a Hanukkah “Jeopardy!” game.
But what I have not felt is unsupported or lost, because I have been guided by caring individuals and a strong community.
Now, it has been a few weeks since I packed my bags and headed to New Jersey (fortunately, without any travel blunders this time) to begin my first ever in-person semester of college. Arriving to campus after months of anticipation, I was so grateful to finally be at school.
I felt the power of a scattered community creating a holy space, gained confidence, and began to feel a sense of belonging.
After my positive experience this past semester, I will be serving on the CJL Executive Board to give back to a community that has welcomed me so graciously. Jewish life on campus looks quite dissimilar from the packed Shabbat service and dinner I attended over a year ago. The CJL dining hall now seats 11 students, not over one hundred; Shabbat services now happen on Zoom or in very large spaces.
As I meet in person the peers who previously only existed in Zoom boxes, I already feel more connected to Jewish life (and, I must add, it is quite fun to be surprised by how tall — or short! — people are in person). Though so much has changed since I first visited campus, I am confident that the warm sense of community I felt then and have continued to feel this past semester will endure.
Julie Levey is a freshman at Princeton University and an alum of The Jewish Week’s Fresh Ink for Teens high school writing program.
Debates over Israel, mental health challenges, anti-Semitism, creating a strong Jewish life — young Jews experience a lot in college. The View From Campus is a column for them to tell The Jewish Week, and you, all about it. Want to write for us? Send a draft or pitch to Lev Gringauz at firstname.lastname@example.org.