Jewish life thrives at Georgetown


Carolyn Lehman remembers how her announcement that she would attend Georgetown University was met with mock horror. The women at her synagogue teased her, saying that studying at the Jesuit school would lead to her conversion to Catholicism. It hasn’t happened.

Now a senior, Lehman found that Georgetown, located in the vibrant Washington neighborhood of the same name, offers its 600 Jewish students a plethora of ways to be involved, from extracurricular clubs and groups to internships, housing and classes.

Lehman was required to take two theology classes.That “made me more knowledgeable about other religions, their beliefs, their similarities and differences to my own, which in turn has strengthened my Jewish identity,” she said. “I do not think that my commitment to, and my belief in, Judaism would be as strong as it is if I had gone to another school.”

Many Jewish students share Lehman’s experience, said Rabbi Rachel Gartner, the university’s Jewish chaplaincy director. Georgetown’s Catholic orientation influences Jewish life on campus, and many students who come with few Jewish connections often leave more involved.

Marshall Lifton, a junior from New York, is one such student. “Being surrounded by many people who are deeply religious has caused me to examine my own values and determine what is important to me,” he said. “I realized that Judaism would always be an important part of my life, and I was inspired to pursue an internship program in Israel this summer on the advice of fellow members of the Georgetown Jewish community.”

Jesuit colleges and universities are located across the United States. Photo courtesy of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.
Jesuit colleges and universities are located across the United States. Photo courtesy of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

“Jesuit values of reflection, pluralism and inclusiveness, and formal support staff and institutions, facilitate a campus-wide environment and dialogue that make exploring Judaism and other religions comfortable,” said Mitchel Hochberg, a senior from Illinois. “Not being Catholic makes me in the minority, but I have never felt that being in the minority meant I wasn’t accepted or that exploring my Judaism wasn’t encouraged.”

In fact, at the convocation in Hochberg’s freshman year, Gartner gave the opening prayer and recited the she’hecheyanu in Hebrew.

“That was the first time I had heard directly from a member of the Georgetown staff and having that interaction be a familiar prayer in Hebrew was welcoming,” he said. Although Georgetown has numerous “arms of Jewish life,” as Gartner calls it, what it doesn’t have is a Hillel student center. Gartner is a university employee, as are the Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christian chaplains. Funding for their programs comes from the university.

“Chaplaincy is not language that the Jewish community attaches itself to,” she said. But her job, in brief, is director of Jewish life: a rabbi to the students, teacher, counselor and Jewish representative at graduations and other university events.

The Jewish chaplaincy does have a relationship with Hillel. Since 2005 it has been a Hillel “affiliate,” which gives Gartner access to the international organization’s resources, including its listserv for rabbis and directors. It makes the chaplaincy eligible for alternative spring break funding and allows Gartner to model her programs on Hillel’s.

And Jewish life is thriving.

“We are touching about two-thirds of our Jewish students’ lives at some point in their journey here at Georgetown,” Gartner said. The Jewish Student Association and Georgetown Israel Alliance give students the opportunity to plan and take part in social and cultural events.

One Georgetown student interns for AIPAC, and JStreet has a campus chapter that sent 28 students to the pro-Israel organization’s conference last year, according to the rabbi.

The university is home to a year-old Jewish living and learning community called Bayit, Hebrew for “house.” About 20 Jewish students live in the five apartments in one of the campus dorms, where they host Shabbat dinners and celebrate holidays.

Another campus offering is the GUish (Georgetown University Jewish) internship program to help “unaffiliated students explore Judaism and go deeper in their journeys,” Gartner said. Nine students are participating in the internship – up from three last year. “These nine interns reach hundreds of Jewish students each year both individually and in small groups,” she said.

For students who want more than extracurricular groups, fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, which is not affiliated with the university, has about 45 members already, including Hochberg.

And beyond extracurricular groups, students can enjoy celebrating holidays and weekly Shabbats with fellow Hoyas.

Gartner’s Welcome Shabbat drew 120 students and a brunch the following Sunday had 75, Gartner said.“Our weekly Shabbat services average about 40 students – depending on what is going on with ultimate Frisbee and the debate team,” she joked. Since the 1960s, campus Jewish life was centered in a communal townhouse.

When Gartner came on board she realized the Jewish community had outgrown the townhouse. The university funded and renovated a space in the student center for Jewish students. It was named Makom, Hebrew for “place.” “It’s our home, our version of a Hillel space,” Gartner said.

The space is used for Shabbat services, meetings, bagel brunches, study hours and has a pantry for hungry college students. The Campus Ministry Department is raising money for a new interfaith center. Gartner said the Jewish section of the department needs to raise $1.5 million in order to have a bigger space, more couches and lounging areas for students to hang out and space for the ark they have commissioned to hold their Torah.

If the plan succeeds, Jews at Georgetown will have a new permanent space that they can call their own at the university where they already are very much at home.

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  1. It is a testament to Rabbi Gartner, colleagues and students that they have capitalized on Georgetown’s culture of commitment to spirituality to bolster Jewish life on campus. Despite the need to reframe the existing Jesuit infrastructure, Gartner et al have had the vision (and support from the Georgetown administration) to grow and thrive on campus and beyond. It is heartwarming to witness the ways in which interfaith tolerance, support and communication can benefit us all. Mazel tov (congratulations!) to all involved parties!


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