PSU JSU reaches out to college-age Jews
By Deborah Moon Seldner
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Jessica Marsden's personal quest for Jewish identity has resulted in a revitalized Jewish Student Union at Portland State University designed to help other college-age Jews find connections in the Jewish community.
When Marsden, now a senior at PSU, became interested in figuring out what being Jewish meant to her, she began attending a variety of synagogues, family Shabbat dinners and sisterhood book clubs.
"I realized what I really needed was the company of people my own age, which means in their 20s," she said. "I feel like my age group is a really important one, when people are really starting to explore who they are and what they want to be. This is the time when it is most critical to show them that Judaism can be cool. An urban university campus is a good place to start. So that's why I was committed to making a JSU a reality."
A similar commitment is the driving force for this year's JSU co-presidents Mark Blinder and Kayla Goldfarb and faculty adviser Ben Anderson-Nathe.
Now an adjunct professor in child and family studies, Anderson-Nathe worked at Hillel and as a Jewish chaplain at universities in the Midwest before coming to PSU. He said he was interested in continuing to work with Jewish students, but since PSU is a commuter school and has no Hillel, that was difficult to do. He agreed with Marsden that college-age Jews are under served.
"In the Jewish community, we do well at connecting little kids through high school and then young adults who are starting families," said Anderson-Nathe. "But in the middle, generally the community response falters. I want to create spaces for young adult Jews to connect with each other and their own Jewish identity."
Goldfarb, who grew up attending both Jewish congregations in Ashland, said she was almost shocked to discover a JSU existed at PSU. "It's nice to have a feeling of community and connections," said Goldfarb. "I like to plan events and find other Jewish people."
Blinder moved from Israel to Portland last year to join his parents
who moved here for a temporary assignment with Intel. He said he intends to return to Israel.
"I didn't know anybody here, so JSU was a good start for me to meet people," he said, adding, "I'm trying to get more people to move to Israel."
Goldfarb said her goal is to get more young people involved in the JSU. Fortunately, support from Portland's Jewish community is helping make that possible.
Thanks to a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and to the donation of ritual items such as Kiddush cups and candlesticks from Congregation Neveh Shalom and Havurah Shalom, last year the JSU hosted about four Shabbat dinners, attended by 30 to 50 people each.
"Students don't have a lot of money, so it's not appealing to charge them to get involved in Jewish culture," said Goldfarb.
In addition to the free vegetarian Shabbat dinners catered by Food For Thought, this year the JSU plans to build a Sukkah in the Park Blocks near the PSU library, hold a Sukkot dinner in the sukkah, sponsor a joint Yom Kippur/Ramadan Break-the-Fast with PSU's Arab-Persian student organization, sponsor a Hanukkah/winter break party, plan an "Over 21 Night for Israel Independence Day," and try to get free tickets for students to attend Jewish cultural events.
That's a far cry from what Marsden found when she enrolled at PSU in 2001. PSU's JSU had a bank account that had been inactive since 1996. No JSU events were planned in the 2001-02 school year, said Marsden. The following year, Rachel Rothstein and Seth Blank organized one event. In January 2003, Marsden organized a potluck Shabbat dinner at her apartment with the help of Bob Liebman, academic director of PSU's Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies.
In the fall of 2004, when Priscilla Kostiner was hired by the Judaic Studies program, she helped the JSU get a federation grant.
"I've found a lot of ? Jews my age in Portland who thought they were the only ones until they met me," said Marsden. "They all have a funny attitude about it too—they are proud to call themselves Jewish, but are skeptical about getting involved with anything Jewish. I wanted to change that."
That's one reason the group has focused on cultural rather than religious activities. The group welcomes non-student, Jewish adults of college age to participate.
"We believe there's more young Jews out there," said Goldfarb. "We just need to find them and for them to be willing to get in touch with their culture."
To be added to the JSU listserve and receive updates on JSU activities, email JSTU@pdx.edu. For more information visit the JSU Web site at Jewishstudentunion.pdx.edu.