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Students Tap into Flourishing Jewish Community at Smith

By Kristen Cole

Princeton University had long beckoned to Rachel Rubenstein -- that is, until she visited Smith and the smart, articulate and passionate students got her ear.

Although Smith did not yet have some of the facets of Jewish life sought by Rubenstein, the daughter of rabbis who eventually wants to go to rabbinical school herself, she was won over by what she heard about the college’s vibrant Jewish community and Jewish studies program.

That was three years ago. Today there are even more reasons for prospective Jewish students to come to Smith, including the two that fulfill Rubenstein’s wish list: kosher-halal dining and study in Israel.

Sidebar: Rescuing Yiddish Treasures

Web only: View a photo gallery of the dedication of the college's kosher-halal dining room

Now for the first time Smith students are able to enjoy kosher food prepared in a campus dining room, in addition to the vegetarian kosher co-operative that has long been available. And for the first time since 2001, when Smith halted the junior year abroad program to Israel because of security concerns, three students -- including Rubenstein -- are studying there.

Rachel Rubenstein. Photo by Jim Gipe.

Both of those changes are critical to attracting a diverse group of Jewish students to the Smith community, says the 20-year-old physics major. They are factors considered by many Jewish families in determining if a campus is supportive of Jewish students.

“We are a small community with very diverse needs,” Rubenstein says. “I hope we become a community that really helps people to meet their needs and engage with their Judaism in whatever way they are comfortable.”

For those wanting to minor in Jewish studies, the program is thriving, says Assistant Professor Justin Cammy. Cammy is one of more than a half-dozen faculty members on the Jewish advisory committee, which is now celebrating two decades of a Jewish studies minor at Smith. The program is enhanced by the Five College exchange and the proximity of the National Yiddish Book Center (see sidebar).

“We are much broader and deeper than the Jewish studies programs at most other liberal arts colleges and many universities,” says Cammy. “With more than a dozen students in the minor at any one time taking courses with experts in Hebrew Bible, Jewish history and thought, modern Jewish literature and Israel studies, we see ourselves as a program that covers four thousand years of Jewish experience.”

For students who want to enhance their education by studying in Israel, that option is also now available. This year Smith joined a handful of the nation’s colleges and universities that decided to offer the opportunity to their students despite a State Department warning.

For those who want to participate in Jewish life in the community, Northampton offers three synagogues. Further, Smith has had a Jewish chaplain presence for some 50 years -- longer than many of its peer institutions.

Earlier this summer, Rabbi Bruce Seltzer (right) and kosher supervisor Joe Morse-Mashgiach, representing the Vaad Ha-Kashrut of Springfield, spent time kashering equipment to make the renovated Cutter-Ziskind kitchen kosher. Photo by Fish/Parham.

For students who want to adhere to a kosher-halal diet, Smith designed a new kitchen and servery in the Cutter-Ziskind dining hall. That change was in response to the recent dining review, which articulated the goal of providing students a more diverse menu, as well as to demand from students over the past few years, says Smith College Rabbi Bruce Seltzer.

Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and one meal on Sunday, the Cutter-Ziskind kitchen serves kosher meals along with traditional menu items. Separate meat and dairy kitchens prepare strictly kosher meals under rabbinic supervision. The entire dining hall will also be pork and alcohol free and meals including red meat will be supplemented by halal meat that meets the highest standards of Muslim dietary laws. (See

Separately, the student-run cooperative kosher kitchen, located in Dawes House, will continue to offer vegetarian meals on Friday evenings. One of the most attended ongoing cultural or religious events at Smith is Shabbat dinner each Friday at that kitchen, says Seltzer.

“The co-op kosher kitchen provides a student community and cultural space and opportunity for expression through cooking,” Seltzer says. “The kosher dining hall provides for diversity and serves the religious needs for the college as a whole.”

In a twist of fate, after Rubenstein spent the summer at Smith helping to establish kosher dining and educate the community about the new option, she will miss its formal dedication during Family Weekend because she’ll be exercising her other new option: study in Israel. Rubenstein is now at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva.

Yet in addition to both of the changes that Rubenstein is taking advantage of, says Cammy, one of the most important reasons for Jewish students to come to Smith is the original reason that attracted her: the students.

“What does a teacher look for in a student?” he asks. “Intelligence, passion and a desire to make a difference -- Smith students have all of those.”

Smith’s kosher-halal kitchen opened at the beginning of the semester. Students can now get kosher and halal meals along with traditional fare in the Cutter-Ziskind dining room. Photo by Jim Gipe.

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