Los Angeles (JTA) — Texas Cristian University may have seemed out of place at this season’s Rose Bowl — but not as much as a few of its fans.
The notion of Jewish students at Texas Christian may seem like a mismatch, but don’t tell that to the several dozen Jewish students at TCU who are now basking in the glory of their team’s 21-19 victory over Big Ten power Wisconsin on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, Calif. Who says the Horned Frog, TCU’s mascot, can’t wear a kipa?
The team’s dominant, undefeated season and top-flight performances in recent years have proved that it belongs among the NCAA’s elite teams, playing on the most storied stage in college football.
The school, located in Fort Worth, has about 60 Jewish students, out of more than 8,000 at the university, which is associated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainstream Protestant denomination.
To serve them, TCU has a thriving Hillel, reports the organization’s adviser, Arnold Barkman, an associate professor of accounting and transplanted New Yorker who has lived in Texas since 1974. Many students can be seen sporting the purple, white and blue Star of David Hillel T-shirts, and Jewish students, professors and staff can be found hanging out and enjoying a nosh at the bagel place across the street from the campus.
Barkman notes that the TCU Hillel sponsors a lecture series that has brought prominent Jewish writers and thinkers to campus, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, author Rabbi Harold Kushner and scholar Susannah Heschel.
The Hillel, which does not hold regular Shabbat services, arranges home Shabbat dinners with area families and provides tickets for students interested in attending High Holiday services at area synagogues.
Not that the situation at TCU could be confused with the Jewish life of its Rose Bowl opponent, the University of Wisconsin. On that school’s Madison campus, there are an estimated 5,000 Jewish undergrads, a gleaming new multistory Hillel building, kosher meal plans and even an Orthodox student organization, JEM, that also fills its dining hall on Fridays. The school’s football team even boasts a Jewish star lineman and NFL prospect, Gabe Carimi.
So how does that tiny Jewish squad deep in the heart of Texas even field a team?
“We are scattered across the campus, but we show everyone there is a Jewish presence on campus,” says sophomore Kyle Orth, a music major and noted concert pianist who is serving as the TCU Hillel president.
Hillel’s (almost) monthly meetings on campus attract from five to 15 students to the new Hillel Conference Room in TCU’s Student Union and feature screenings of Israeli films and the construction and presentation of a yearly on-campus Holocaust exhibit.
“Going to a Christian college makes you aware of who you are as a Jew,” Orth says. It also “makes me aware of what I can bring to the world as a Jew.”
It is not a phenomenon limited to TCU. A number of Jewish students attend other schools across the country associated with Christian denominations, including Jewish “fighting Irish” at Notre Dame University in Indiana and Jews at the Jesuits’ Boston College.
At Boston College, about 2 percent of the school’s 9,000 students are Jewish, according to the director of Jewish life there, Elissa Klein. Tzvi Novick, the Jordan Kapson Chair in Jewish Studies at Notre Dame, serves as adviser to the Jewish Club there. Novick notes that Notre Dame has no Hillel and only a few Jewish students on campus.
Some of the students who attend Jewish on-campus groups at these Christian schools are actually gentile, but curious to learn about Judaism. For example, according to Novick, at Notre Dame, non-Jewish students are active in the Jewish Club.
At TCU, Barkman says, students who are converting to Judaism attend Hillel meetings.
At Boston College, Klein has learned that “the millennial students want cultural exchanges.”
“One of our most active members is not Jewish,” Klein says. “We even get non-Jewish students who might miss their hometown Jewish neighborhoods and friends.”
Sounding like Orth at TCU, Klein says that attending a Christian campus “heightens the student’s ethnic identity. Jewish students feel like a real minority here.”
Klein says she fields calls all the time from parents asking, “Will my son or daughter be able to date someone Jewish?”
What brings Jewish students to a Christian campus?
“Students like Kyle [Orth] come to pursue a specific major,” answers Barkman. “Some just like to stay close to home. We had a student whose parents moved here from Israel, so it made sense to come here.”
Barkman says that in recent times, TCU’s administration has grown more sensitive to its Jewish and other non-Christian students.
“The school asked about food items served at campus luncheons which may by unacceptable to Jews and Muslims,” he says. “I suggested they alter their menu from pork and shellfish.”
Barkman also points to the school administration’s decision this year to stop an anti-Israel divestment group from meeting on campus. And TCU expects to have a new director of Jewish studies in the coming academic year. It’s also worth noting, he says, that the school has no chapel requirement. “Only one class in religion is required,” he says. “And there are a variety of classes to fulfill it, including a class in contemporary Judaism.”
TCU is not a campus of “Bible thumpers,” Barkman adds. “Everyone on the faulty knows I am Jewish,” he says. “I feel comfortable here. There is no bias on this campus.”
Of course, being Jewish at TCU still can garner some attention.
One such instance started with an announcement that TCU’s football team is going to switch to playing in the Big East Athletic Conference with Rutgers University.
Soon after the change was announced, Barkman received a call. “Hi, are you Arnie Barkman?” the caller asked. “The Arnie Barkman who I met at Camp Tel Hai in Pennsylvania?”
“It was a man I met at camp when I was 14,” Barkman says. “He works at Rutgers and wanted to see if there was anything Jewish at TCU.”