Nassau Inn Comes to the Rescue For Orthodox Student Group
By Anne Levin
For the Orthodox Jewish students at Princeton University, the pandemic presented an especially difficult problem during the last school year. Prayer services have to be done in person, and the campus was closed.
“We were in a bind,” said Ezra Zimble ’22, who is president of Yavneh, the Orthodox student group affiliated with the University’s Center for Jewish Life-Hillel (CJL). “Orthodox law does not let us do virtual services on Shabbat, because we can’t use computers or phones. So we really had a need for in-person services.”
Thanks to the Nassau Inn, Yavneh was able to keep daily and sabbath observances going. “They very graciously offered to host our services, for free, until the end of April,” said Zimble. “It was really kind of them and we are so grateful. Rabbi Julie Roth [CJL executive director and Jewish chaplain at the University] worked really hard to make it happen, and the University worked hard, too. She reached out to a bunch of local businesses, and Lori Rabon [vice president of Palmer Square Management and general manager of the Nassau Inn] got back to her with this amazing offer.”
Services were held in the hotel’s main ballroom, which provided ample room for social distancing. Some 40 students, faculty, and members of Princeton’s Orthodox community attended. “We have active members who are not University students,” said Zimble, speaking from his family’s home outside Boston. “ These are people who live in the area, and because of COVID, they would not have been allowed into campus buildings.”
When the University became off-limits to just about everyone during the pandemic, Roth started searching for a space to rent downtown. “There were some empty storefronts. I spoke to some people I knew in real estate, and some local architects,” she said. “Somebody recommended I speak with Lori Rabon at Palmer Square Management. I didn’t even know, when I called her, that she managed the Nassau Inn as well.”
Rabon told Roth that empty storefronts on Palmer Square were already being used by other groups. Would Yavneh be interested in using the ballroom at the hotel?
“I thought, we cannot afford to rent the ballroom of the Nassau Inn for six months,” Roth recalled. “But she turned around and said, ‘We’re happy to host you there for free, until business picks up. I couldn’t believe it!’ ”
Rabon was pleased to make it happen. “Historically the hotel team has found ways to give back to the community during crisis,” she said. “Allowing Yavneh to host their services at the Nassau Inn during the pandemic was a natural way we were able to offer support. We are committed to the Princeton community and are happy that we were able to help in even the smallest way.”
Roth said the hotel was especially welcoming . “It’s not just that they hosted us,” she said. “They made sure we had a place to store all of our religious items. They offered the same hospitality they offered hotel guests. They were happy we were there, because the hotel was very empty.”
The location, so close to campus, was ideal. Yavneh ended up holding services at the hotel longer than originally planned. “That’s when wedding season began, and by that time it was warm enough that we could meet outside,” Roth said.
Yavneh, which is student-run, opened at Princeton in 1961. The organization holds three daily prayer services as well as weekly Shabbat observances, provides kosher meals, and sponsors social and educational programming that is open to all. “We do have people who don’t identify as Orthodox coming to our services,” said Zimble. “And in the past, we have done social events with non-Jewish student groups.”
After Yeshiva and Brandeis universities, Princeton was the third to offer facilities and services to students who are Orthodox. Yavneh has become a mainstay not only for Orthodox Jews on campus, but for the wider Orthodox community as well.
“There is no Orthodox synagogue in town, so the Orthodox community here is made up not just of of students and faculty, but of people outside of the University,” said Roth. “Yavneh is the synagogue.”
Plans are for students to return to campus for the fall semester, and for Yavneh to resume its services back on campus. “With the vaccine mandate, all of the community members who aren’t students or faculty, if they are vaccinated, plan on attending,” said Zimble. “Everyone has to wear a mask. So we expect to be fully in person at the CJL building, and we expect things to be as normal as possible.”
In addition to Roth, Zimble is grateful to University educators Rabbi Mati Kahn and Shira Kahn, who hosted gatherings in their backyard each week after Shabbat morning prayers.
“Yavneh is an amazing space where you can connect with like-minded peers and build a social community and feel close to people,” he said. “It is really a special bond. The CJL is an amazing place to meet Jews from different backgrounds, not just Orthodox. The dinners get 200 kids on Shabbat, many of whom are not even Jewish. Being so inclusive and welcoming of other denominations is really special and uniquely possible at college campuses. Rabbi Julie and the CJL have done a great job.”