A failure to communicate

Last week, the College was lucky enough to be graced by a new crop of prefrosh: wide-eyed, awestruck and, to a fairly large degree, not Jewish. This year, Previews was held over the first two days of Passover, a time when Jews come together with family and friends to have big meals, called seders, in celebration of one of the most important and beloved Jewish holidays. The decision to schedule Previews over Passover perhaps could not be helped, but the lack of consultation with the Jewish community and the minimal accommodations for potential students observing Passover could have been. Unfortunately, this oversight left the Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA) in the unfortunate situation of having to explain to potential new members why the school appeared so unaware and unsupportive of their religious needs.

Asking students to travel to Williams over Passover is not as simple as missing a large family gathering. The seder is a combination of a meal and a service, a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, and a time to thank G-d for saving the Jewish people from slavery and providing the blessings of our lives today. In addition to the seders the first two evenings, Jews also adopt additional dietary restrictions including not eating grains, legumes or leavened products for the entire eight days of Passover. Finding kosher for Passover food can be difficult even at home, let alone while traveling across the country.
Given these potentially difficult circumstances in which to travel and stay in a foreign environment, the College should have made a number of accommodations for the visiting students. Even further though, and the main issue at hand, the College should have consulted with WCJA to see if there were any accommodations that needed to be made for Jewish students. Even without an understanding of the demands of the holiday, communicating with WCJA should have been done well in advance of the Previews date to ensure that incoming Jewish students would have a positive perspective on such a wonderful institution.

Because WCJA was not consulted until a week before Previews, there was a considerable amount of scrambling required to try to make students feel comfortable visiting the school and assure them that they would have options for both seders and regular meals during their stay. Unfortunately, in some cases the damage was already done; however, for those who decided to attend Previews, invitations were extended to both WCJA seders. Additionally, prefrosh were told at the seder where they could find food the next day. However, at the same time, the pamphlet for Previews listed the wrong time for the seder, there was no indication in the Previews packet of where to find kosher for Passover food during other meals, WCJA had difficulty establishing a presence at the Purple Key Fair because the event directly conflicted with seder, prefrosh who attended the seder missed the Purple Key Fair and Jamboree entirely and current Jewish students had to choose between seder and performing. In perhaps the most telling example, during the panel on spiritual life at Williams, the College provided a brunch for parents. At the brunch, carefully wrapped and set aside in aluminum foil, was a tray of kosher bagels, food very much off-limits for those abiding by the Passover dietary restrictions.

The concern now is that prefrosh will have a negative outlook on Jewish life at the College because of the lack of organization and perceived lack of accommodation for their needs. For the members of the Jewish community, this is especially troubling, given the family atmosphere and vibrant community that exists on campus. In recent history, the College has been strongly supportive of its Jewish population. The presence of the Jewish Religious Center and at least 100 smiling, hungry faces every Friday night at Shabbat dinner certainly indicate so. However, in this instance the College faltered and the Jewish community could really suffer next year because of it. Several members of the current WCJA board noted that if they had been in a similar situation, they would not have attended Williams. Therefore, the likelihood of losing vital membership is unfortunately high and the hope of building a strong, diverse Jewish population in the incoming class has been damaged.

As with all things, there is a silver lining to this Previews event. The Jewish prospective students who made the trip to campus had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Williams Jewish community. This was a fantastic opportunity to make real bonds and have legitimate conversations with Jewish students at the College while getting a much clearer perspective than a three-minute conversation at the Purple Key Fair or a quick chat at a lunch event. For the members of WCJA and the association’s extended family, it was an opportunity to show off the incredible resources and awesome atmosphere of WCJA and, quite simply, how great we have it at Williams, in many ways thanks to the generosity and understanding of the College. The real problem is the negative, wholly inaccurate perspective that potential students who decided not to attend will have of Williams, as an institution that is either ignorant or unsupportive of their religious needs. In the future, students of the Williams Jewish community hope that all administrative and academic departments will be sensitive to the calendars of all religious groups on campus. We further hope that when apparent conflicts occur, students will be consulted so that the partnership of the entire Williams community can be reflected in the search for solutions to difficult challenges.