Jewish Life at Georgetown celebrated its 50th anniversary March 22 with a special Shabbat that brought together current and former students and faculty to remember the history of the Jewish community at Georgetown University.
The event included Shabbat prayer services as well as speeches by students and administrators. Numerous Jewish alumni and professors attended the ceremony, and University President John J. DeGioia gave the opening address.
Jewish Life, the Jewish faith chaplaincy at Georgetown established in 1969, runs weekly Shabbat services, hosts celebrations of recognized holidays and organizes community events
Georgetown and its students have benefited from the contributions of the Jewish community and faith tradition, DeGioia said, referring to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which translates from Hebrew to literally mean “repair the world” and has to many become representative of the pursuit of social justice.
“We have a richer understanding of what it means to be a university when we are inspired by the spirit of tikkun olam, and for this, we are all deeply grateful,” DeGioia said in his speech. “We are a stronger community because of the presence of this faith community.”
Reflecting on the past of the Jewish people is critical for the future of the community, according to Ari Goldstein (COL ’18), manager of special projects at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and a former historian for the Georgetown University Student Association.
“The stories and figures of our communal past contain powerful lessons for us,” Goldstein said in his speech. “Discerning those lessons is a job for each of us that we each must take on for ourselves as part of a collective conversation.”
Jewish life on campus started in 1834, when the Marx Lazarus enrolled as the first Jewish student to attend Georgetown. Still, Jewish students faced significant barriers finding their way to the Hilltop long after. The university imposed a quota to limit the Jewish student population to five individuals each year throughout the earlier half of the 20th century.
Georgetown hired its first full-time rabbi in 1968, more than a century after Lazarus enrolled at the university. While the university had historically hired part-time rabbis, Rabbi Harold White became the first full-time rabbi at a Catholic university in the United States.
White, who retired from Georgetown in 2010 and died in 2015, also played an important role in creating the university’s Center for Jewish Civilization — referred to as the Program for Jewish Civilization when it was founded.
The CJC, a teaching and research center in the School of Foreign Service founded in 2003 that offers classes on Jewish civilization, is one of many outlets that have developed alongside Jewish Life to support the Jewish community on campus, including the Bayit LLC, a residential community to celebrate Jewish culture and heritage.
The Jewish chaplaincy’s primary goal has been to develop and connect Jewish students, according to its website.
“Jewish Life at Georgetown aspires to advance the life and growth of every self-defined Jewish student through building their sense of Jewish Connection, Confidence, and Concern,” the website reads.
Experiences at Georgetown foster a stronger sense of Jewish identity for many Jewish-identifying students on campus, according to Goldstein.
“Virtually every single alumnus with whom I spoke told me that they graduated more knowledgeable, proud and engaged in Judaism than having entered Georgetown, and attending this Jesuit, Catholic school strengthened their Jewish identity,” Goldstein said in his speech.
Jewish Life is still grappling with the diversity of its community members, and opinions surrounding contentious issues like Israel continue to pose challenges, according to Katie Wysong (SFS ’19), a member of the on-campus Jewish community. Acts of hate against the Jewish faith both at Georgetown and nationally also remind Jewish Life members of existential concerns for their community.
“As our community has grown, these questions become more centrally engaged with,” Wysong said. “We also face external threats, with the swastikas drawn across campus and the Pittsburgh shooting last year demonstrating it all too clearly.”
This struggle and debate, however, has contributed to the strength of the Jewish community on campus, according to Wysong.
“However, out of those difficult moments and difficult conversations, we emerge stronger,” Wysong said in a speech.
Though the event served to remember the Jewish community’s past on campus, it also served as a prayer for its continued strength and vitality at Georgetown, according to Rabbi Rachel Gartner, director for Jewish life on campus.
“Tonight we will celebrate the generations of Jewish Hoyas and our staff who have fuelled and fanned the flames of Jewish life so that it could shine as brightly and as powerfully as it does right now through the eyes of the myriad students in this very room tonight,” Gartner said at the event.