April 13, 2016

Conference on Jewish Life at Princeton To Bring Hundreds of Alumni to Campus


CELEBRATING A MILESTONE: Princeton University’s Center of Jewish Life has been a gathering place of Jewish students on campus for more than two decades. The long history of the faith on campus is the theme of a special, four-day conference.

It has been a century since Jewish students at Princeton University first gathered to celebrate the Sabbath, or Shabbat. It would have been unthinkable, in 1915, to imagine a four-day conference of lectures, panel discussions, religious services, and meals celebrating the University’s role in Jewish life.

But that is just what “L’Chaim! To Life: Celebrating 100 Years of Jewish Life at Princeton,” intends to do this weekend. All alumni have been invited to this mega-conference on the campus, and some 650 had registered as of early last week.

“That is an extraordinary number and I hope we’re prepared for it,” said Margaret Miller, associate vice president for alumni affairs and director of the University’s Alumni Council. “It was discovered, over the last year or so, that the first gathering of Jewish students in a formal way for Shabbat happened on campus in the fall of 1915. So we thought it would be interesting to bring alumni back to celebrate 100 years of organized Jewish life on campus and update them on what’s happening at Princeton.”

Like other minority groups, Jews were not exactly welcome at Princeton a century ago. While the University always claimed not to use quotas, there is evidence, specifically in a biography of 1930s University President John Grier Hibben, that the practice did exist.

From that first service in 1915 until 1947, Jewish life at Princeton was centered solely around Shabbat and holiday observances. In was in that year that the Student Hebrew Association was founded. Albert Einstein attended the inaugural service of this organization, which was the precursor of Princeton Hillel.

A group of Orthodox students lived together at Yavneh House, first at 21 Olden Street and later at 43 Wiggins Street, where they were able to have kosher meals and hold Orthodox services. Yavneh was relocated to Stevenson Hall, a University dining facility at 83 Prospect Avenue, in 1971, becoming the first University-sponsored kosher kitchen in the Ivy League.

Architect Robert A.M. Stern was hired in 1988 to design the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) at 70 Washington Road, site of the old Prospect Club. Operating as a partnership between the University and Hillel International, the CJL opened in 1993. According to its website, the CJL connects with more than 70 percent of Jewish students at the University, “fosters partnerships and collaborations with all segments of the University, develops the next generation of Jewish leaders, and works to ensure the continued vibrancy of Jewish life on campus.”

Planning for the conference began a year ago. “We held six alumni focus groups across the country to talk to alumni about what they might want to do and what they want to hear about,” said Ms. Miller. “We took a survey, and heard a lot from alumni directly. We’ve been working with the CJL, Chabad, and the Program in Judaic Studies. So we’ve gotten a ton of input.”

The conference begins Thursday, April 14 with afternoon activities that include “The Great Princeton Challah Bake with Challah for Hunger” and a campus tree tour. Topics of talks and panel discussions throughout the weekend include “Judaic Studies at Princeton: Current Research;” “Early Jewish Life at Princeton in Historical Perspective” with Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna; a discussion with University presidents emerita William Bowen and Harold Shapiro; “Jews, Princeton, and the Universe;” “A Conversation on Israeli-American Relations;” “American Journalism: Disrupted, Disdained, (In) Dispensable” with alumni panelists from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Huffington Post, and The National Journal; and several more. There will be concurrent faculty lectures and a talk by University President Christopher L. Eisgruber.

Despite all of the opportunities for scholarly enlightenment, the main event for many attending the conference will have to do with food. “The highlight for most people will be Shabbat dinner on Friday night, in a tent on campus because there is no place big enough,” Ms. Miller said. “We will also invite students to participate. It will be enormous. It’s a nice way for people to really get to know the students and each other. It’s really bringing people back, through the generations. And along with celebrating a milestone, that is one of our goals.”