‘Jews at Williams’ documents minority struggle at College

The Jewish Religious Center has changed the Jewish experience at the College. Photo Courtesy of UPNE Books
The Jewish Religious Center has changed the Jewish experience at the College.
Photo Courtesy of UPNE Books

Last Saturday, the College community gathered together for the release of Jews at Williams, a book that details the struggle and growth of the Jewish community at the College from the institution’s founding to the construction of the Jewish Religious Center (JRC).

“This is a big deal for this college,” President Falk said at the book release. The book, commissioned by the College, shines a light on both the positive and negative aspects of Jewish life. The book’s author, Benjamin Wurgaft, combed through archives and interviewed alumni and faculty in an effort to document the history of the College’s Jewish community. “The task of the historian is to reflect back on some of the most common narratives,” Wurgaft said during the panel, “and to raise questions from these common narratives.”

Wurgaft believes the book deals with two main concerns: “First, the structural factors that contributed to a distinctive pattern of Jewish experience at Williams, and second, the kind of response to that experience that the JRC instantiates,” he said. Jews at Williams examines the minority identity in higher education. “This is a story about college, class and American life, about who has access to which social networks and why and what happens when an immigrant group begins to move into pre-established networks,” Wurgaft said.

To Wurgaft, one of the most important eras in Jewish history at the College was the 1980s. “[This] period matters a lot because it helps us understand what can happen when an institution attempts to engage with the prejudices and unsavory practices of its past,” Wurgaft said. During this time, President Francis Oakley moved the College beyond its anti-Semitic past to a welcoming future. While the fraternity system was disbanded prior to Oakley’s appointment as president, the College’s stigma as an unfriendly environment for Jews plagued admissions and Jewish enrollment. “The College was not attracting the talented Jews in the numbers we should,” Oakley said during the panel, at the book’s release. To resolve this issue, the College constructed the (JRC). “The perception [of Williams] beyond the campus was trumping the realities,” Oakley said, but the JRC fixed that issue. His deepest wish was that the “opening of the JRC would speak to the depth of the College’s aspiration to be a community of hope.”

For Wurgaft, one of the most important purposes of the book is demonstrating “the persistent importance of social networks in modern times.” Social networking at the College was, until 1962, driven by the fraternity system. Jewish students were for the most part excluded from this system. There was discussion among Williams Jews in the 1950s focused on potentially creating a Jewish fraternity, but the idea was not pursued for fear that it might further divide the already isolated Jewish community.

A few of the alumni at the event saw the creation of the JRC as a perpetuation of this “social networking problem” rather than a solution to it. These alumni viewed the building as a “new fraternity” for the Jews on campus. Wurgaft disagreed with this view. “I don’t think many people view [the Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA)] as a ‘fraternity,’ either now or in the past,” Wurgaft said. “[The fraternity view of WCJA is] a minority opinion from a previous era.”

Cantor Bob Scherr explained the role of the modern-day JRC not as an exclusive social house but as a welcoming gathering point, most clearly embodied in WCJA’s weekly Shabbat dinners. “People who were not very welcomed are the ones who welcome the community to the JRC,” Scherr said regarding the Friday night event. While the book ends at the construction of the JRC, the history of Jews at the College is continuing to evolve and change. Over the past two years, community-wide attendance at Shabbat dinner has nearly doubled, and the Jewish Association is becoming an engrained part of the College’s community.