Community celebrates tenth anniversary of JRC

Between Friday, Nov. 3 and Sunday, Nov. 5, the Williams College Jewish Association celebrated the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the Jewish Religious Center (JRC). Jewish alumni from all over the country arrived on Friday to partake in Shabbat dinner and then on Sunday to hear a discussion of the historic significance of the center and new initiatives organized by the Jewish Association.

Among the speakers at the Sunday event were Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College, Lawrence Kaplan, a professor of chemistry, and his wife Carolyn and Rabbi Sigma Coran, assistant chaplain. In total, about 125 people were present at the Sunday rededication and brunch.

The history and evolution of the JRC and the Jewish Association have revolved in large part around the commitment of Kaplan, a member of the faculty since 1971 and the Jewish Association’s faculty advisor since his arrival on campus. When he arrived on campus for his interview, a student, Jeffrey Seitelman, actually approached him and asked if he would consider overseeing the Jewish Association and Center, then located in the basement of Thomson Memorial Chapel. Kaplan soon learned that no faculty members at Williams had offered to take the position, and despite his ineligibility at that moment, he promised the student that he would happily take the job if the College hired him.

After his appointment as a professor of chemistry, Kaplan moved quickly to reinvigorate the Jewish Association. At the time, the only religious figure on campus was a Protestant chaplain; thus, it was left to Kaplan to provide both religious and social guidance to the students in the association. He initiated Sunday brunches and started a series of lectures and films on Jewish identity.

At first, the association was largely a social forum in which Jewish students gathered to enjoy each other’s company. However, as it grew in popularity with the roughly 200 Jewish students on campus, Kaplan started planning religious activities. He held Friday night Shabbat dinners – “Sometimes there were two students, and sometimes there were ten” – noting that he was never sure if students came out of courtesy to their faculty advisor or out of genuine interest in the religious significance of Shabbat. Only after students reciprocated and invited Kaplan and his wife to Shabbat dinners prepared by the students did the professor fully realize the growing strength and commitment of the Jewish student population at Williams.

By the mid-1980s, “we were becoming more of a force on campus,” Kaplan remembered. “It was inappropriate for us to be in the basement of a chapel.” Kaplan and Francis Oakley, then president of the College, proposed the center as a keystone of the College’s bicentennial campaign.

After receiving approval from the Board of Trustees to move ahead with the project, Kaplan –fearing that changing financial market conditions might hinder the project if it wasn’t begun immediately – urged Oakley to accelerate the building timetable. He succeeded, and in October of 1990 the Center was completed and dedicated.

“We wanted it to be a sanctuary space, a comfortable social space,” Kaplan said. “The Jewish Center has become a place of study, a place of worship, a place of culture.” The Center has largely succeeded in its goals; at the Friday night Shabbat dinner, students of different races, religions and ethnicities were all present to appreciate the cuisine and festive spirit.

Rabbi Sigma Coran, in her first year as an assistant chaplain to the College, agreed with Kaplan, but said she sees the tenth anniversary as a stepping stone for a continuing effort to improve Jewish life on campus. “The rededication is not a culmination [of the progress that Jewish students have made at Williams],” she said. “It’s a statement of where we’re going and from where we’ve been.”

Coran would like to see an increased commitment by Jewish students to the Center, not only religiously, but also socially and politically: “[Coming to the Center] is about Jewish people being knowledgeable, about Jewish History, Jewish issues, et cetera.” Coran said that Jewish students must have a basic understanding of their history and the issues surrounding Judaism today – knowledge that she is willing to teach. “College students are at risk. They are liable to walk away from religion.” It is Rabbi Coran’s hope that she can affect changes to stop the movement away from religion, and instead improve Jewish students’ faith.

Students such as Caren Mintz ’01, a co-coordinator of the Jewish Association, have already been swayed towards a focus on Judaism at Williams. “I have found a beautiful place to practice the spiritual and religious ends of my Judaism as well as a great environment in which to enjoy my culture,” she said.

During a Sunday brunch of bagels and lox, Schapiro addressed those gathered with remarks about the significance of history, particularly in regard to Jewish life at Williams. Drawing on his early experiences at the University of Southern California, Schapiro discussed the impact of religion – specifically Judaism – on college campuses around the nation.

One paradox Schapiro noted is that USC has had numerous Jewish presidents and yet the university still had a reputation as a hostile place for Jewish people to learn when he worked there from 1991 to 2000. Schapiro continued his speech by relating his belief that while Jews were may have felt unwelcome at USC, the same environment existed at Williams earlier in the 20th century.

“I think when students considered Williams College [as a place to matriculate] in 1980, the [lack of a strong Jewish population] was a big problem,” he said.

The JRC and the Jewish Association have changed this sentiment to some degree, but, echoing Coran’s sentiments on a broader level, Schapiro believes there is much work to be done. “Williams is a great place to be, a great place for Jews to be…but I’d like Jews to be attracted by the strength of the Jewish Community at Williams.” While Schapiro asserted that people do not consider there to be anti-Semitic sentiment on the Williams campus anymore, he defines the situation of Jews on campus to be “neutral;” there is neither an overriding negative aspect of Jewish life at Williams that would turn away a prospective student, nor is there an overwhelming reason to choose Williams over a larger urban university with a larger percentage of Jewish students.

While the JRC has met with a large amount of praise from students and faculty, there is some belief, along the lines of Schapiro’s remarks, that Williams could be doing even more to integrate the Jewish tradition into campus life. Specifically, sentiment has been expressed that the College could easily increase its Jewish studies courses, perhaps as a method of moving Williams from a “neutral” campus to a school with an incentive for Jewish people to attend.

“There has been very slow progress in the development of Jewish Studies,” Kaplan noted. “This is visible in the limited number of courses in the curriculum [that relate specifically to Judaism].”

The Williams College Bulletin lists five courses offered in 2000-2001 as “Courses in Jewish Studies,” collectively taught by only two professors. Every course offered in 2000-2001 falls under either religion or classics, with one art history and one English course listed, but not offered this year. A number of additional courses are noted as “partially related” to Jewish Studies.

Even though the JRC is a visible sign that the College has accepted Jewish culture at Williams, it is odd that academic offerings lag so far behind the cultural aspects of Judaism at Williams. Coran offered a counter-argument. “I think Williams College is very committed to having a tenured faculty member in Jewish Studies. I think there’s a limit to what a school this size can do.”

She continued that she hopes her “presence [at Williams] will spur some independent study.” Still, if the College is to become more appealing to potential Jewish students, one must ask whether or not it has to offer a more concrete academic program.

Despite any future discussion that might arise about the status of Jewish studies – a topic that Schapiro did not actually touch on in his talk – Schapiro is equally as interested in Williams’ past. “I am fascinated by the experience Jews have had [at Williams] over the years,” he said. Then, in an impromptu move, he opened the floor to comments from his listeners. For 20 minutes, Schapiro listened to alumni share stories of their experiences at Williams, including the problems they faced and the comfort and support they found in the Jewish Association.

Numerous alumni mentioned Kaplan as a guiding light during their time at Williams. “Professor and Mrs. Kaplan carried Jewish life at Williams in a way that was not to be believed,” one alumnus told Schapiro. Continuing on the idea of learning more about Jewish history at Williams, Rabbi Coran next introduced a major Jewish history project being organized by the Jewish Association. Throughout the Center, pictures collected by professor and Mrs. Kaplan had been placed on poster-boards for identification. The identification process marked the first step in a Jewish Association initiative to thoroughly document the history of Jewish life at Williams.

Rabbi Coran has high hopes that the project will increase exposure of the Jewish experience at Williams and serve as the first true documentation of what life was like before the beginning of the Jewish Association. The ceremony proceeded with a prayer of rededication led by Rabbi Coran. Professor and Mrs. Kaplan then stood and thanked current and past members of the Jewish Association for their financial generosity, but just as importantly for the “spirit they put into the Center.”

The ceremony ended with a benediction by Reverend Richard Spalding, the Chaplain to the College. One alumnus, upon completion of the ceremony, turned to his classmate and remarked, “that exceeded my wildest expectations.”

While there is still potential for future improvements to the JRC and Jewish life at Williams, the tenth anniversary nonetheless marked the significant progress that Jewish students at Williams have made in the last ten years.