Middlebury

50-year anniversary of Hillel chapter reminder of how far Jewish culture has come at Middlebury

October 31, 2004

"What I observe in conversations with current Hillel members is a new sense of the importance Hillel played in the lives of Jewish alumni and in the history of Middlebury College.  There is a real understanding that students in the past had taken risks from which students today benefit.  There is a growing sense of responsibility and understanding that what Hillel members do today can have a profound impact on generations of students to come."

---Rabbi Ira Schiffer, Middlebury College Associate Chaplain and Hillel Advisor

 

Hillel members attend an outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat service on campus in October.  Photo by Tad Merrick.MIDDLEBURY, Vt.?Signs of thriving Jewish culture are plentiful at Middlebury College, but such activity was not always the norm.  On Friday and Saturday, Nov. 12 and 13, approximately 100 Jewish alumni, students, parents and faculty will gather for a celebration marking the 50-year anniversary of Middlebury's chapter of the Jewish campus organization Hillel.  The group will attend a religious service together at the college's Jewish Center, share meals, listen to a speaker discuss "The Vanishing Center: American Judaism Present and Future," and watch a play, "The Melting Pot," about early 20th-century Jewish immigration.  Participating in these celebrations will be current Middlebury students whose leadership and advocacy on and off campus have brought them recognition from Hillel International, the parent organization of campus chapters in the United States and abroad.  The anniversary is a reminder of how much Jewish culture has developed at Middlebury, where Jewish students represented only a tiny fraction of the student body 50 years ago.

Rabbi Ira Schiffer, Middlebury College associate chaplain and Hillel advisor, has worked at the college since 2001.  He organized the anniversary celebration, which also commemorates the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in North America-the first Jewish immigrants arrived in New Amsterdam, or today's New York City, in 1654.

"What I observe in conversations with current Hillel members is a new sense of the importance Hillel played in the lives of Jewish alumni and in the history of Middlebury College.  There is a real understanding that students in the past had taken risks from which students today benefit.  There is a growing sense of responsibility and understanding that what Hillel members do today can have a profound impact on generations of students yet to come," said Schiffer.

In comparison with past students, students entering Middlebury today, says Schiffer, have had a strong involvement with their Jewish communities and a great deal of Jewish education from home, Hebrew school, Jewish day schools and high school Jewish youth groups.

According to Schiffer, the establishment of a Hillel chapter at Middlebury College in 1954 began a slow process of redress of an American social ill.  Schiffer points to author David Stameshkin's history of Middlebury College, "The Strength of the Hills," which states, "In 1920, out of 319 students, there were only 5 Catholics and 2 Jews."  Stameshkin adds, "Life for Jewish students in the interwar period was difficult at Middlebury but no different from that of Jewish students elsewhere. They were allowed social privileges in fraternities but could not be members, and they faced the normal anti-Semitism of that era." 

Stameshkin also notes that by 1950, there were 18 Jewish students on campus, or 1.5 percent of a student body of 1,200.  It was in this atmosphere that a handful of students, with the support of the college's chaplain, Charles Scott, established the Middlebury College Hillel.

In a letter to Schiffer regarding Hillel's anniversary, Ed Maline, a 1957 graduate and one of the Hillel founders, recalled his days as a Jewish student at Middlebury:

"In the 1950s, there were few Jewish or black students at the college.  It never was a problem being Jewish-just no one really cared one way or the other.  Some of the fraternities did not take minorities.  Mine, KDR [Kappa Delta Rho], went to its national organization to get a local option regarding membership just to make me a member."

Schiffer notes that, like Hillel members at Middlebury today, Maline was well integrated into the general life of the college.  "To the best of my knowledge, Ed Maline was also the first Middlebury College alumnus to become a rabbi," added Schiffer.  Maline currently serves in this position at Temple Kol Ami-Emanu-El in Plantation, Fla.

As a student, Gerry Zelermyer objected to compulsory Christian chapel services, which were in effect at Middlebury until 1961, the year he graduated.  With Scott's support, Zelermyer helped start a Jewish chapel service in 1957, which also fulfilled the chapel attendance requirement.  According to Zelermyer, with a combination of food and good speakers, the Jewish service often had greater attendance than the Christian services held in the college's Mead Chapel.

Zelermyer, inspired by Scott, who died this year on Oct. 10, also went on to become a rabbi.  He currently serves in this position at the Mikve Israel-Emanuel, a synagogue in Curacao.

In "The Strength of the Hills," Stameshkin states that by 1970, the number of Jewish students at Middlebury had reached the national average of 5 percent, a figure, Stameshkin notes, "well under the percentage at several other top colleges."

The number of Jewish students began to rise in the mid-1980s.  In 1985, the appointment to the religion department of Robert Schine, the Curt C. and Else Professor in Jewish Studies, made Jewish studies an integral part of the college's academic offerings.  Another milestone occurred in 1993 with the establishment of the Jewish Center, which houses a kosher kitchen, in the college's Freeman International Center.  This student-led initiative was organized by 1995 Middlebury graduate Janine Zacharia, now the Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.

Schiffer estimates that today roughly 10 percent of the student body at Middlebury-approximately 200 students-are Jewish.  Among those participating in the 50th anniversary of the college's Hillel will be current students such as senior Mike Vilarello of Miami, co-president of Hillel at Middlebury.  Vilarello was selected by Hillel International as one of five college students from around the world to be profiled in its upcoming 2004 annual report.  According to the organization's Web site, the five students profiled in the previous year's report exemplified "Hillel's commitment to Israel, Jewish engagement, social justice, Jewish learning and klal yisrael-the international community of the Jewish people."  Vilarello organized a spring break trip earlier this year in March to help the residents of Cerro Bonito, a small rural farming village in Honduras, build a school.  Seven Middlebury students, including Vilarello, participated in the project.

Returning alumni will also meet Middlebury sophomore Sarah Lauing of Palo Alto, Calif., a Middlebury College Hillel board member who was named a 2004-2005 Tzedek (Social Action) Advocacy Intern by Hillel International.  According to Hillel International administrators, Lauing is one of 18 interns in the country chosen to help infuse Hillel and campus life with advocacy and activism at a grass-roots level and from a Jewish perspective.  Lauing spent this fall forming a committee which will plan events to address hunger as well as a corresponding advocacy campaign.  As part of her internship, she participated in a national training program organized by Hillel and, within the next few months, will begin working with a mentor from the local Middlebury community.  Middlebury College Hillel received a $2,000 grant from Hillel International to help implement Lauing's program.

Later this year Schine and Schiffer will appear at Middlebury alumni events in Washington, New York and Boston in honor of Hillel's anniversary.  Schiffer will provide an overview of Jewish culture on campus and Schine will give a lecture on a topic related to Judaism.

What really pleases Schiffer about today's students is that he sees them entering the college with more than an ethnic identity.  "I see students coming with organizational experience and the self-confidence and wisdom to be non-threatening models for the many more students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, coming to Middlebury College ambivalent about their religious and cultural identities or searching for a community and sense of values to compliment their academic experience," he said.

Today, the activities of the Middlebury College Hillel, which often involve other campus groups or the local community, reflect the change in the demographics of the entire Middlebury student body as well as the town.  Hillel sponsors a Hebrew language lunch table, a weekly Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service and dinner, as well as volunteer and cultural activities.  This fall, first-year student Rachel Bearman of Memphis, Tenn., started a weekly Torah study group and junior Rachel Schiffer, Ira Schiffer's daughter and Hillel co-president, began a monthly series of lectures given by Middlebury faculty on topics related to Judaism.  In the past the group has held a Chinese Shabbat service and dinner with the Middlebury Asian Student Organization and it has also organized a number of joint programs with the student Islamic Society. 

Havurah, the Jewish congregation in Addison County, now joins Middlebury College Hillel for High Holy Days services whereas students once traveled to Burlington and worshipped with the Ohavei Tzedek Congregation there.  Ronald D. Liebowitz, who was inaugurated as Middlebury College's 16th president on Oct. 10, and his wife Jessica are members of Havurah, and Schiffer is the congregation's director of education.  For more than 15 years, Middlebury College Hillel students have also served as the faculty of the Havurah Hebrew school and participated in community Hanukkah and Purim celebrations.

Schiffer sees the joint High Holy Days services as a turning point in Jewish life at Middlebury.  During a Rosh Hashanah service held by Hillel and Havurah on Sept. 15, Schiffer remarked, "The symbolism of our services now being held in Mead Chapel should not be lost or minimized. To my mind, this is nothing short of the college's official worship space becoming a shared, sacred space for the practice of diverse spiritual and religious disciplines in the college community."

To follow is events calendar listing information:

 

Middlebury College Silberman Symposium in Jewish Studies

"The Jews in America at 350 Years"

Saturday, Nov. 13

2-5:30 p.m.

Keynote Address: "The Vanishing Center: American Judaism Present and Future" by Samuel C. Heilman, the Harold Proshansky Professor in Jewish Studies and Sociology at the City University of New York.  Discussion will follow.

Panel: Three Middlebury College faculty members will each give a talk and a panel discussion will follow.  Theodore Sasson, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, will discuss "A Jewish and Democratic State? How American Jews Discuss Israel's Identity Dilemma;" Robert Cohen, associate professor of English and creative writing, will discuss "Living, Loving, Temple-Going;" and Robert S. Schine, Curt C. and Else Silberman Professor in Jewish Studies, will speak about "Jewish Thought for American Jews: Rereading Mordechai Kaplan."  Laura Lieber, assistant professor of religion and classics, will serve as moderator.

Robert A. Jones '59 House Conference Room, Hillcrest Road off College Street (Route 125)

Free

For further information, contact the Middlebury College Department of Religion at 802-443-5289.

 

"The Melting Pot" by Israel Zangwill

Nov. 11-13, Thursday-Saturday
8 p.m. each evening and 2 p.m. on Saturday

Zangwill's 1908 play about immigrants in America updates the story of Romeo and Juliet, asserting that America is a new country where the old hatreds have no place. This production complements the celebration of Middlebury College Hillel's Jubilee Year, the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in North America, and the Silberman Symposium in Jewish Studies. Directed by Middlebury College Professor of Theatre Richard Romagnoli. Sponsored by the Department of Theatre and Dance.

Wright Theatre, Le Château Road off College Street (Route 125)

Tickets are $5 general admission and are available at the Middlebury College Box Office in the Center for the Arts.  For more information or tickets, contact the Box Office at 802-443-6433 or www.middlebury.edu/arts

 

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