When Rabbi Julie Roth, director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University, arrived on campus in the fall of 2005, she was the only non-Christian among the school’s four chaplains.
Since then, Hindu and Muslim chaplains have been added, and Chabad has also joined the campus religious community.
Those positions are an indication of what Roth and other Jews on campus say is the administration’s commitment to religious diversity. And earlier this semester, there was one more sign: the approval for Princeton’s first eruv, the symbolic Shabbat boundary that is a welcome mat for observant Jews.
“The Princeton University administration is extraordinarily supportive of Jewish life,” said Roth. “They are remarkable about accommodating the needs of students. I think in part it is a greater sensitivity to religious minority groups that we are also seeing nationally.”
By all accounts, Princeton’s early reputation as unfriendly to Jewish students, based on the exclusionary policies of its eating clubs into the 1950s, is ancient history for most students. Instead, they describe a welcoming environment and a close-knit Jewish community.
An eruv consists of unobtrusive strings, wires, and other materials generally attached to telephone poles and other standing objects to form a distinct boundary. Within its “enclosure,” Jews who observe Shabbat and holy day restrictions are able to carry objects like keys and books and push strollers otherwise forbidden outside the home on those days. Although few would even notice the strings (the White House is enclosed by an eruv), it lifts a weekly burden on observant Jews.
“It had to happen. It was time,” said Rabbi Haim Jachter, an eruv expert who served as the halachic, or Jewish legal, adviser for the project from its inception. “Today, it’s a given for Orthodox Jews. We’re used to having eruvs. It’s hard for youngsters to adjust to not having one.”
Construction should be complete within a couple of months. The project has taken five years from idea to reality and has taken hundreds of hours of research and planning on the part of rabbis associated with the Orthodox Union’s Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU JLIC), eruv experts, and university staff.
Undergraduate Ethan Marcus could not believe what he heard. “They’ve been talking about this forever,” said the Brooklyn native, who is starting his sophomore year.
Other campuses around the country with an eruv include Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Cornell, University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, Boston University, and UCLA.
Rabbi David Wolkenfield, who served as the OU JLIC rabbi at Princeton from 2008 to 2013, did much of the work paving the way for the eruv. “From the very early stages, people at very high levels of the school’s administration saw the eruv as a crucial piece of infrastructure for religious diversity. It was not surprising but it was very gratifying,” he said.
Marcus, class of 2018, said a big part of his decision to attend Princeton had to do with the embracing Jewish community he found when he visited.
With 650 Jewish students, or 12 percent of its 5,323 undergraduates, Princeton has fewer Jews than other similar schools. (Cornell has 3,000 Jews among its 14,453 undergrads, or 21 percent; Penn has 2,500 Jews among its 9,746 undergrads, or 26 percent.)
“But at Princeton, everyone interacts with everyone,” said Marcus. “That’s really lovely. It’s so tight-knit and welcoming no matter your place in the Jewish community.”
The Student Hebrew Association was established at Princeton in 1946. It was absorbed into Hillel in 1949. In 1961, students started the Orthodox minyan known as Yavneh House. By the 1980s, Jews comprised 18 percent of students on campus, and plans for a new building to house all Jewish activities on campus were drawn up. In 1994, the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel was dedicated.
For a moment in 1999, it looked like things might be taking a turn for the worse, when the Jewish population on campus dropped to 10 percent, a shift significant enough that it was reported in a 1999 article in The New York Times.
Since then, the numbers have been creeping up. The school ranks 39th on national Hillel’s list of top 60 private universities by Jewish population. About 10 percent of the Jews on campus are Orthodox, according to Roth. Engagement among all Jewish students has dramatically increased, she said.
When Roth arrived, about 60 to 80 students came to Hillel for Shabbat dinner on Fridays. Today, the number has more than doubled. And while CJL has long held Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox worship services, its projects have expanded to include everything from a theater group to a hallah-for-hunger effort to feed the hungry. More Princeton students are traveling to Israel, and more are involved in Jewish leadership opportunities.
The current effort to create an eruv was not Princeton’s first attempt. A previous investigation concluded that because the campus telephone poles were underground, it would be impossible to build a halachically acceptable eruv at a cost-efficient price.
This time, Wolkenfield brought in Jachter. “He came in with a can-do attitude,” recalled Wolkenfield in a phone conversation. “He just said, ‘We’re going to build this eruv.’” Jachter trained Wolkenfield on what would work and what wouldn’t, and then left it to Wolkenfield to figure out a route.
Wolkenfield described going from utility pole to utility pole, following wires that sometimes led to dead ends, backtracking and mapping a new route, looking for fences and embankments and slopes that could be used according to Jachter’s instructions. When he finally presented the route, it was nixed as “too big and too cumbersome,” he recalled.
Trying again, he came up with an eight-mile perimeter that enclosed all of the campus, most of the residential houses, and part of the town. And then he started meeting with the administration. Those meetings continued through the tenure of his successor, Rabbi Elie Bercuson. A third OU JLIC rabbi, Ariel Fisher, who started in August, is overseeing the construction.
Everyone involved praised Princeton’s facilities manager, Lori Jepson, for having made “a magnificent investment” of time and university money into the project, as Jachter put it. Although she could not be reached for comment, there was a consensus that Jepson devoted hundreds of hours to the project.
For sophomore Ethan Marcus, the eruv will put an end to his anxiety about what to do with his books on Shabbat.
“We stop for Shabbat, but the campus does not. We have to study on Shabbat. But I never know what to do with my books,” he said. “I have to choose a place to put them before Shabbat, and I cannot move them the whole time.
“I could leave them at the Center for Jewish Life, but it can be noisy and hard to concentrate. If I leave them in my room, then I cannot study with friends. It’s a Catch 22 where to go.”
With the eruv, Marcus said, “It will be great. I can carry my books if I need to study.”