‘Home away from home’: Jewish Life at Duke welcomes students back for 23rd year on campus

This is part two in a series profiling the identity centers at Duke, highlighting the work they do and their roles on campus. Part one, which focuses on the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, can be found here. Check back for more articles in coming weeks.

As Blue Devils get back into the swing of fall classes, Jewish Life at Duke welcomes students back for its 23rd year on campus. 

Jewish Life at Duke (JLD) is comprised of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and the Rubenstein-Silvers Hillel, which  provide cultural, religious and educational programming for Duke’s Jewish population of about 1,700 undergraduate and graduate students. The Freeman Center acts as the brick-and-mortar hub of the Jewish Student Union, the student counterpart to JLD. 

Jewish Life at Duke serves about 60 percent of the Jewish-identifying population on campus, according to its 2019-20 annual report. Forms of engagement for Duke students include community events such as weekly bagel brunches and Latkapalooza, religious opportunities and a regular discussion seminar known as the Jewish Learning Fellowship. 

Students can also be found simply hanging out in the Freeman Center: using its spaces for homework, midday naps, and catching up with friends and mentors. Joyce Gordon, director of Jewish Life at Duke, calls the identity center “the home away from home for Jewish Duke students.” 

This home is also one that feeds its family. Providing food for students is a key ingredient in Jewish Life’s mission at Duke. The Freeman Center boasts its own café, which offers classic Mediterranean and Kosher meals—staples in the Jewish community and convenient options for those who observe Kosher. Also on the café menu is “The Bubbe Special”—an offering sure to evoke home for Jewish students getting used to being away from family. Then for dessert, an assortment of beloved Ashkenazi treats can be found, including chocolate rugelach and cinnamon babka.

“The Freeman Center rugelach always hits the spot, a great treat at Shabbat after a long week,” said sophomore Sam Savitt, a member of Jewish Life at Duke. 

JLD additionally hosts weekly Shabbat dinner on Friday evenings in the Freeman Center, which are free, Kosher and inclusive to Jewish students of varying religious and cultural identities. Shabbat is the celebration of the Sabbath, and traditionally Jewish families gather on Friday nights to break bread and light candles—a weekly ritual that JLD is recreating on Duke’s campus.

These Friday night dinners are preceded by “non-denominational, pluralistic Kabbalat Shabbat service[s],” which provide Duke’s Jewish population with a regular opportunity to connect to their faith, according to the JLD website. 

With the High Holidays coming up in the next month, both the Freeman Center and Hillel will soon be teeming with students looking to celebrate the two holiest days on the Jewish calendar. JLD hosts a myriad of events for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, both of which honor the Jewish New Year, when students will gather together in celebration through meals and open services for various denominations.

However, Jewish Life at Duke does not simply cater to religious students. The organization embraces the wide range of Judaism that exists on campus and around the world, including those Jewish individuals who identify as agnostic or atheist. 

Explaining JLD’s take on Judaism’s flexible range, Gordon wrote, “Judaism is a peoplehood—an ethnoreligion, and one can be fully, proudly Jewish without being religiously observant in any way. Further, we don’t believe there is one way to be Jewish. We welcome all!” 

This mindset is certainly evident in JLD’s early and active engagement with the freshman class. For first-year Arielle Zabusky, JLD has transformed the “big community that is Duke into a smaller, less overwhelming community.” She wrote that “JLD has allowed me to bring my Jewish traditions from home to my everyday life at college and has provided me with a way to make new friends.” 

First-years who are hoping to be involved in Freeman Center and Hillel programming have been assigned into Jewish First Year Advisory Mentorship groups, known as JFAMs, each of which are led by two upperclassman “parents.” The JFAM program was designed by Jewish Life at Duke, and is led by the Jewish Student Union, to ensure that an atmosphere of inclusivity and family—core values of JLD’s mission on campus—is present for new students. 

“We reach out to every single Jewish first-year student in the fall semester with an invitation for a one-on-one conversation over coffee, so that we can learn about them, connect them with their peers and our programs and ensure they have a trusted adult on campus to whom they can turn,” wrote Gordon, who aims to engage as many Duke students as possible.

Gordon feels that reaching this mission has been accelerated by the implementation of QuadEx, Duke’s new living/learning initiative. The new housing arrangement contributes to the cultivation of a tight-knit Duke community, a keystone of JLD, according to Gordon.

“The sky is the limit for programming in the quads,” Gordon said. 


Sophie Levenson profile
Sophie Levenson | Sports features editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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