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ND’s ‘only’ Orthodox Jew shares experience

Sara Felsenstein | Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Senior Damian Sharratt is the only Orthodox Jew in Notre Dame’s undergraduate student body and the first in the University’s history to request a kosher meal plan.

Sharratt has had this meal plan for two and a half years.

“Notre Dame said you have to buy a meal plan if you live on campus. I explained [the situation] to Food Services … I put them in contact with the former rabbi of the community and he hooked it all up that the guy who cooked for the Yeshiva [an all male Jewish high school in South Bend] would send over meals once a week and they would freeze them and put them in a fridge in South Dining Hall.” 

Sharratt is a double major in mechanical engineering and industrial design.

He said the main reason he came to Notre Dame is the University’s high academic standing.

“It’s a good school. My family kind of made me [go], actually,” he said. “I went to Florida State my first year, did well, and my family basically told me I had to go to a better school.”
Sharratt grew up in a Reform Jewish family in Hollywood, Fla. He decided to become Orthodox around the age of 18, right before he came to Notre Dame. 

Sharratt said the tight-knit Orthodox community is “something that no other culture in the world has.”

“There are times where I’ve been at some random place and with two phone calls I have free housing and free food,” he said. “[The hosts] don’t even know me. It’s very trusting.” 

Sharratt has found the Orthodox community in South Bend to be “small but good.” For services, he attends the Hebrew Orthodox Congregation or the kollel, which is an institute for Talmudic study, in South Bend. 

Orthodox Jewish faculty members have also been a source of support for Sharratt.
“I’m very close with Dr. Franks. He teaches Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic. I’m usually at his house every weekend. I’m never on campus during the Sabbath. I’ve never been to a football game. There’s a lot of rules associated with keeping [the Sabbath].”

Sharratt said although it would not be impossible to keep the Sabbath on campus, it would be difficult.

“You can’t write, you can’t drive, you can’t manipulate electricity. It is a day of service and prayer,” he said.

Friday nights, Sharratt attends Shabbat services, which are followed by a formal dinner at the Franks’ home. For him, Saturdays are spent resting and praying. 

“It’s a day of reverence, a day of rest, but really it’s a day to focus on spirituality,” Sharratt said. 

Sharratt said all of his professors and peers have been accepting of his faith. 

“I haven’t gotten one ounce of anti-Semitism,” he said. “If anything, I’ve gotten more respect.”

However, Sharratt said he feels a general ignorance pervades campus about what Judaism stands for and how Orthodox Judaism is distinguished from the Conservative and Reform denominations. 

“I would say the majority of people on campus have never met an Orthodox Jew,” he said. 
Practicing Orthodox Judaism, Sharratt said, requires more than just attending synagogue, observing the Sabbath and praying three times a day. According to him, it means following laws that affect every aspect of life. 

“There are laws on how to clip your fingernails, tie your shoes, dress, what to think about, what you should have on your mind, self-inspection, prayer, business dealings —there are 613 biblical commandments,” he said. “Then, you have the Rabbinic [laws].”

These laws, Sharratt said, are a constant reminder of one’s devotion to Judaism and to the Torah. 

“The fundamental questions I’m asked are: what is your purpose in life? What’s the purpose of your being alive? What happens after death? All the major philosophical, ethical issues, Judaism addresses,” he said. “[Judaism] gives you a complete purpose of life [and helps to explain] why you do all the things you do.”

Sharratt said he has greatly improved his spirituality over the last few years. 

“It’s been a roller coaster,” he said. “Whenever you’re striving to better yourself there will be ups and downs. Being here, I’ve had my ups and downs, but overall it’s been a very good experience.”

Sharratt said that practicing Orthodox Judaism at a school with a pervasive Catholic atmosphere has been a challenge but has also helped him to strengthen his commitment to the faith.

 “I’ll tell you a very important thing that I’ve kind of noticed,” he said. “If, for example I’m one of 10,000 Jews living in one community, everyone’s doing the [same thing], but when you’re more isolated, all those things that you would [normally] do, you have to question ‘why am I really doing this?’ You really get to a more pure form of service of G-d. You are really able to know yourself that much more.”