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Campus Jewish Life

Elana Warren

Elana Warren is a fall 2020 graduate of the University of Minnesota. She was active in the campus Jewish community as a founding member of the Minnesota SAEPi chapter, and she attended other Jewish events with Hillel, Chabad and more. Bet Shalom’s Elisia Cohen is SAEPi’s faculty advisor and the director of the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication from which Elana earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Bet Shalom students connect with Jewish organizations at the University of Minnesota.

Moving on to college is a big transition. Having something consistent and familiar, like a weekly Shabbat dinner or meeting people with a shared identity, can help make the change more manageable. Many Jewish students make the University of Minnesota campus feel smaller by finding their place within the Jewish community.

Bet Shalom members attending the Twin Cities campus for the first time often have the advantage of having grown up near the campus and knowing older students. Rising senior Eliana Smelansky said she got her first glimpse of Jewish life on campus while still in high school when visiting college friends for Shabbat at Chabad and Hillel, Jewish organizations that are on many campuses.

Jewish U of M Students with giant menorah
University of Minnesota community members pose on the 3M Arena at Mariucci ice on the second night of Hanukkah in 2017. Chabad and Hillel annually co-host an ice skating event for Jewish gophers to celebrate Hanukkah together.

Even without such connections, many Jewish freshmen find they are already on the radar of Jewish organizations. Hillel student representatives invite new Jewish students to get coffee and introduce Hillel and Jewish life on campus. Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi reaches out to invite students to join the sisterhood.

A Jewish student has to put in effort to find the right Jewish space at the University of Minnesota, but the options are right there for anyone who is looking. Some choose leadership within Jewish organizations; others choose to attend Jewish events once a semester.

Smelansky looked for two things in a community: the ability to practice her Judaism and the opportunity to develop leadership skills. She said she gravitated more toward what she called the close-knit family feel at Chabad, though she found what she was looking for with both Chabad and Hillel.

She has gone from engagement committee member to engagement chair at Chabad, and she’s been a communications intern and a Visionary Council member with Hillel. Hillel’s Visionary Council aims to start programming geared toward introducing high school upperclassmen to the Jewish opportunities available on the Twin Cities campus.

Joey Cutts, a May graduate, found leadership opportunities in the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. Between Greek life such as AEPi, SAEPi and Sigma Alpha Mu; Chabad; Hillel; and other clubs, there are abundant leadership opportunities to build confidence and skills as well as community.

Greta Cutts, a May graduate and Bet Shalom’s youth advisor, said she expected the campus Jewish community to be like the community at her camp, OSRUI. “It was, but it wasn’t,” she said. The campus has the strong community of camps, but there is more variety in the people — people have different interests and passions and different Jewish observance levels, she said.

“Just having all these connections to other Jewish young adults is so nice and in a way comforting, I think, especially coming in,” Greta Cutts said. She could go to Hillel or SAEPi and find shared values and similar upbringings with the people there. “That can be hard to find at a university this big, and I just thought it was so nice to have those people around and be connected in that way.”

Whether they came to the University of Minnesota looking to join the Jewish community or the Jewish community found them, Smelansky and Joey and Greta Cutts said the Jewish community made the large Twin Cities campus feel smaller. Many of their commitments are centered around the Jewish community, and it has brought each of them some of their closest friends.

Joey Cutts said, “There’s just something about having that connection already that brings you closer to people. I’ve been going to Shabbat every single Friday for the last almost four years, and it’s something that I don’t even think about, but there’s always something to do, always new people to meet, always something to get involved in, and most people don’t have that. I think we’re very lucky.”