Jewish life in a Southern College Town

Oct 30, 2015

Over the past couple of years, the University of Alabama has seen an increase in the number of young people on campus. As a part of that increase, the number of Jewish students has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. We looked what it is like for these students of a different faith to go to school in the heart of the Bible Belt

“I was nervous at first and especially going through sorority rush and being one of the only schools that doesn’t have a Jewish sorority that scared me a lot.” University of Alabama junior Kerri Fogel is from Atlanta and she’s Jewish. Along with the usual butterflies associated with leaving home, there was the concern that there would not many ways to remain connected to her faith. “The second I got onto campus all of those worries went away, which was an amazing feeling and I realized that people don’t really care about your background they care about who you are.”

However, Fogel found a place to keep that connection…

It’s 6:00 in the evening at the University of Alabama’s Hillel in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. There is close to over 100 students and faculty celebrating the coming of the Jewish New Year. Hillel is a non-profit organization that serves as the Jewish Student Center at Alabama. It’s also a home away from home for students. Lisa Besnoy is the Director of Hillel. She wants her organization to be an inviting place for students to come to…

“We want students to be able to walk in, feel at home. I always say that it’s a good say when somebody is sleeping on the couch and playing basketball. That’s the kind of environment that we want to create for our students.” Hillel has been around on Alabama’s campus since 1934. It provides various types of programming for students during the school year. That includes holiday meals, lox and bagel brunches, yogafit and Friday night dinners. These activities help brings Jewish students together and help them feel closer to home.

We met Kerri Fogel earlier she’s now the student president at Hillel. “Honestly its meant everything to me because I know a have a place Hillel feels like my home away from home. Because of Hillel and having the community here I feel like I have grown as a person and its helped me mature a lot and a lot to find my Jewish identity.” And there are a lot more students like Fogel at the Tuscaloosa campus. Since about 2000, the number of Jewish enrollees has almost doubled.

To keep raising awareness about the school and its Jewish population, Lisa Besnoy has been taking her show on the road to cities like Atlanta… “One of the things that is in our long term strategic plan is to start and continue helping with Jewish recruitment to campus. So this past year I was at several college fairs in Georgia and Texas. We host the regional college recruiters so they are very aware about Jewish campus life, so when a parent comes to them at a college fair they can say oh yeah let me tell you what Hillel is doing and let me tell you about Jewish campus life and how to get in touch with people on campus.” Word of mouth from their fellow students helps as well…

“ I think as the Jewish populations increasing more Jews are going back home to these out of states and are telling their other people back home that is getting them to come.” Emily Cimbal is a junior at Alabama and she thinks Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity has helped get more boys to consider the school… “Just the whole aspect of them having a Jewish fraternity here and boys wanting to join it is I think a way that increased the population here.”

ZBT has been around on Alabama’s campus since 1916. The fraternity currently has 102 members and will be celebrating their 100th year on campus in the spring of 2016.

“Going forward I think that I have a learned a lot, because of ZBT and it could help me out going forward into the future.”

That’s Jon Knohl. The Missouri native is the fraternity president. “ It’s a good strong foundation for any Jewish male that wants to thrive not only in college, but once they get out into the real world.” More Jewish students means more demand for programs and options in expressing their religion.

As a result, an organization called Chabad came to UA. Chabad is an organization that puts an emphasis on Jewish programming and gives people options to learn more about their heritage and to study. Rabbi Kussi Lipskier leads Chabad. “I think there is so much more that can be done for the Jewish students here in terms of them being comfortable and them having Jewish pride”.

Along with Hillel and Chabad there is a local synagogue on campus, Temple Emanu-El. It’s been around since 1912. And, it offers a place for worship for Tuscaloosa locals and students and Jewish youth education. Rabbi Steven Jacobs also teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. “I think that as all religiously connected organizations, you have them in all communities, for students for whom their identity however they define it, is important these organizations provide social context, program context and levels of support that I think go a long way towards making the college experience even more meaningful.”

Only time will tell what will continue to happen to Alabama’s Jewish population, but at the rate it’s going it will continue to rise and flourish.