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Being Jewish at Notre Dame

| Thursday, October 28, 2021

I often receive emails from prospective Jewish students inquiring about Jewish life at Notre Dame. They’ll ask about the University’s Catholic environment, the Jewish community on campus, antisemitism and anything else a Jew might wonder about going to a Catholic university. I’ve also heard similar questions from non-Jews on campus. For that reason, I’ve written out my answers in this column — as a resource for anyone who might be interested in the Jewish experience at Notre Dame.

Before delving too far, I should note some background information about me. I’ve been in Catholic school since sixth grade, so I’m more adjusted to a Catholic environment than an average Jew. I’m also religiously Jewish and pray, while other Jews might be more culturally Jewish, but I don’t attend synagogue that often. I’ve done work related to antisemitism, the Holocaust and Israel because those are important to my Jewish identity, whereas it might not be as important to another Jew. I say all this to stress that my interpretation of being Jewish at Notre Dame is unique to my Jewish identity. My answer isn’t the universal Jewish experience. Still, I hope I provide some useful insights.

Also, while this column is particular to Jews at Notre Dame, I’d imagine its sentiments are applicable to any non-Catholic group, to an extent.

On its face, the Jewish experience at our University is a positive one. Jewish students’ status as Jews does not negatively influence our Notre Dame experience. This is even true for someone like me, who publicly expresses their Jewishness. I wear my kippah daily, pray in Hebrew at the dining hall, and talk about Jewish issues with friends, faculty and staff. In all these encounters, I’ve found people at Notre Dame are enthusiastic and appreciative about Judaism. In those ways, being Jewish is beneficial to my time at Notre Dame.

Now, it takes time getting used to Notre Dame’s Catholic environment. A crucifix in every classroom, chapels in every dorm, the significant number of students attending Mass and other elements make it clear that Notre Dame is a Catholic institution. That’s perfectly fine and I’m not indicting the University for being Catholic. In fact, I value the Catholic educational approach, as it influenced my choice to go here. I’m noting this part of our campus life because it does require adjustment for a Jew. Personally, I was used to seeing Touchdown Jesus every day after one semester here.

Additionally, Jewish students might find themselves educating their peers often about Judaism. Sometimes, it’ll appear as though there’s a permanent form of disconnection between Jewish and non-Jewish students, but it’s never malicious. Generally, most students haven’t had significant exposure to Judaism and are naturally unknowledgeable on the subject. In my experience, this bridge can be crossed, especially since most students I’ve encountered are curious about Judaism. We learn to appreciate each other’s differences while celebrating our similarities.

There is a Jewish Club on campus, despite the small Jewish population. I’ve never seen the exact numbers, but I’d estimate there’s no more than 10 to 20 Jews in the undergraduate student body. We do host events regularly, but there’s often low attendance among Jews. Regardless, the Jewish Club remains an open space for Jews and non-Jews to celebrate Judaism and partake in religious and cultural traditions. We also have a great relationship with the local Jewish Federation and nearby synagogues, providing numerous outlets for Jews to explore their identity.

The administration has also done a decent job of supporting the Jewish community and has worked with the Jewish Club to promote a more inclusive environment for Jewish students. In fact, we hosted Antisemitism Awareness Week for the first time last semester, which was received well by the student body. An important highlight is the adoption of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism by the Notre Dame student government, a significant step in the school demonstrating solidarity with the Jewish community.

The University genuinely wants to be a space for Jews, but there are often difficulties and frustrations that impede that effort. Now, I’m not arguing there isn’t antisemitism at Notre Dame. Just last semester, the Jewish Club was Zoom-bombed at a virtual event where participants shared lewd videos and swastikas. When I discuss Jewish issues in my columns, there are often antisemitic responses on social media or the comment section, whether from people within the Notre Dame community or from random strangers. I’ve also experienced antisemitism in real-life on this campus, but it’s not nearly to the extent that I would let it define my Notre Dame experience. Although it should be concerning that someone feels comfortable sharing such hateful views, these experiences should not derail the positive interactions I’ve had as a Jew on campus. It is those connections and exchanges that I cherish and attribute to the betterment of my academic, spiritual and personal development. There will be antisemitism, but it’s no worse than any Jew would experience in everyday life, especially if you’re involved in the Jewish community.

I could say more, but I’ve run out of space. I wouldn’t let the Catholicism at Notre Dame dissuade prospective Jewish students from applying. I’ve found my faith and pride in being Jewish has grown at Notre Dame, especially through my friendships with Jewish and non-Jewish students. While Notre Dame can definitely improve its inclusiveness of the Jewish community, any Jewish student would prosper at this university.

Blake Ziegler is a junior at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He enjoys writing about politics, Judaism and the occasional philosophical rant. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or followed at @NewsWithZig on Twitter if you want to see more of his opinions.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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