“Are there really only four Jews at your school?”
It was 8pm. Four hours earlier, Colby College had sent a bus to the University of Maine at Farmington to escort me and three of my friends to the annual Fall Shabbaton. Now, standing in the conference hall surrounded by other college-aged Jews, I felt entirely out of my depth. Again and again, I talked with students from schools with more established Jewish communities, and I’d heard this question asked in a variety of ways the whole night.
“We’re not all here,” I replied, a polite smile pasted on my face. “But yeah, I guess we’re a pretty small bunch.” Lurking beneath that vague-but-true sentiment I’d been parroting all night was the complicated history of the last year and a half.
In the fall semester of 2021, I helped create the first Jewish student organization at my school, which — at the time, unbeknownst to me — was three whole decades in the making. Talk of starting a Jewish campus organization started long before I or any of my classmates stepped foot on campus. Our faculty advisor, who taught in the school’s philosophy program, had been hoping for some sort of Jewish organization for students since the early nineties. Previous groups of students had come close to forming one before, but the number of students just hadn’t been sufficient.
Building our own community from scratch was exciting, although it wasn’t an easy task. Just like our predecessors, we had a hard time finding enough people to actually qualify as a school club. Even after we cultivated a dedicated membership, we weren’t able to secure any funding from our school. Instead, we relied on the local Jewish community. We felt the outpouring of support almost immediately: My rabbi told me she was proud of me for taking initiative; Jewish locals in our college town emailed to let us know how happy they were that this was finally happening; former students reached out via social media to say they wished they had this kind of community when they went here. My fellow co-founders and I were ecstatic, not only for ourselves, but also for the future generations of students who, we imagined, would enjoy the Jewish legacy we left behind.
We enjoyed one semester’s worth of beautiful Jewish joy: We went to seder with our advisor and his wife and hosted phone-free mornings on Shabbat. We even began cultivating a library of Jewish literature for ourselves using donations from our members.
Then, as we were planning our fall semester — in the middle of brainstorming the best apples to use for Rosh Hashanah celebrations and floating around ideas for where we might build a sukkah — we got the bad news. Sweeping budget cuts had hit our school, and the chancellor had made the decision to retrench nine professors from the humanities and cut two programs of study entirely. Our advisor was one of the faculty members whose jobs fell victim to the cuts.
Suddenly, all the work we had done to create this organization felt like it was for nothing. Things seemed utterly hopeless: What were we going to do without any funding from our school and without the support of a faculty member on campus? I began thinking, again, about the Jewish legacy we were leaving behind for future students. Would we be added to the long list of those who tried to create a community for ourselves but just couldn’t sustain it? Were we willing to give up this easily?
We felt the crushing weight of the circumstances. Still, we refused to let our organization be trampled by them. If our Judaism has taught us anything, it’s how to survive. We lean on each other for support now more than ever — our group chat is small but lively. And our greater college-town community is still there for us, cheering us on as we find our footing once again. We’re currently planning student-led Shabbat services, and we have even worked with diversity and inclusion professionals on campus to make plans to better support Jewish students on our campus. And although we haven’t found a new advisor just yet, we’ve stayed in touch with our old advisor who still provides us with community spaces, even now.
At that same Shabbaton, I watched with a profound sense of comfort as one of my co-founders stood in front of a crowd to teach the parashah, Lech-Lecha, in her own words. She spoke about the differences between the Los Angeles Jewish community she grew up in and the Jewish community she now finds herself a part of in rural Maine; however, not once did she disparage our community here up north. In fact, she beamed with joy as she spoke about the meaningful connections she’s forged — not in spite of our small size, but because of it.
So, yes, I suppose there are only four of us in the Jewish Student Union — but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Our community is a product of our perseverance, and, honestly, I can’t think of anything more Jewish than that.