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'Where Students Can Learn About Their Faith'

March 30, 2011 By:
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Jeremy Cooper

ewish life wasn't a top priority when Jeremy Cooper was looking for a school.

Little did the 22-year-old economics major from northeastern Pennsylvania know that he would end up becoming the president of a small, but transforming, Hillel at Villanova.

They don't have a building, a rabbi, services or kosher food. Still, Cooper said, at least there's something that allows Jews to "hang out with each other and not feel like they're the only ones on campus."

Villanova is the only area Catholic college where an organized Jewish presence exists, according to local officials.

Officials say Villanova's Hillel actually dates back about 40 years. Programming fluctuated depending on the population of the Jewish student body at any given time and whoever took an interest in leading the group.

Currently, Hillel participants estimate that there are about 45 Jewish undergraduates on campus, and up to 100 more at the law school.

Though that number has actually dipped from past years, Cooper and faculty adviser Rebecca Winer have built up a stable following.

Back when Cooper first spotted the Hillel booth at an activities fair four years ago, he said, only a couple of students showed up for monthly meetings. Now, he added, there's an executive board and several other active members helping out with five or six events every semester.

They join the law school, which has its own Hillel division, for an annual Passover seder, throw parties to celebrate Chanukah and host cookie bake-offs for Purim.

"Some people just want to be able to come and eat some cookies just to see that there are some other Jewish students here," said Winer, who is a history professor.

Last semester, the group invited guests from the law school, and Haverford and Bryn Mawr colleges, to its first on-campus Shabbat service and dinner.

For students who want more religious opportunities, Winer acts as a liaison with local synagogues and Chabad houses.

During the High Holidays, for example, she can connect students to schools like the University of Pennsylvania, which welcome visiting students.

She voluntarily does this, she said, because she wants Villanova to be not just a great school, but "a place where Jewish students can learn about their faith, and grow and progress with their Jewish interests."

Winer mentioned that her own rabbi tends to pokes fun at her involvement, saying, "So, you're the rabbi at Villanova, huh?"

Spreading the Word

Winer and Cooper also volunteer to meet with prospective Jewish students and parents who want to know more about what kind of Jewish life they'll find at Villanova. Winer estimated that she has coffee or gives tours to about 30 people every year.

Clearly, she said, her university is not the right place for an observant student who keeps strickly kosher, but many Jewish students seem to be happier now that there are more activities targeted toward them.

If those options continue expanding, she said, perhaps Villanova will even encourage more local Jewish kids to consider applying there.

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