“One of the prevalent myths about dorm life is that it is hard to be shomer mitzvot.
“Why on earth would you want to do that?” was a common response I got when I told my seminary friends my plans for college. I was going to the University of Maryland, and planned to live in the dorms. By contrast, most of my friends were going to Jewish universities, or staying at home and attending community colleges. More than a few people tried to convince me not to go, insisting that I would be much happier at a Jewish institution, or worse, that I wouldn’t be able to maintain my religious identity in such a “spiritual desert.”
I’m not finished with school, and my story is far from written. However, I like to think that I’m proving them wrong. Every morning, when I attend Shacharit with more than fifty frum students; or in the evenings, when I gather with others for Maariv in the parking lot of the university library; or on Shabbat afternoon, when I don’t get a chance to sleep because I’m busy with multiple chavrutot and shiurim; or over spring break, when I opt to volunteer in Israel with Maryland Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break program, I’m proving them wrong.
One of the prevalent myths about dorm life is that it is hard to be shomer mitzvot. But this misconception has no basis at Maryland. According to university policy, all students must sign roommate agreements at the beginning of each semester, specifying what they would and would not accept in their rooms. Once the roommates come to an agreement, they must live up to it, or they will be penalized. This policy makes it easier for religious students to feel comfortable in the dorm.
At Maryland, many of the Orthodox students on campus live in the same cluster of buildings. Students request this area because it is closer to the Hillel building, which houses the kosher dining hall, the shul and the beit midrash. My first Shabbat in the dorms I was pleasantly surprised to find a sign put up by the non-Jewish resident assistant explaining the Jewish practice of not using electricity on Friday nights and Saturdays, and requesting that non-Jewish residents help out by turning on lights in the bathrooms or stairwells if they happen to be off. Friday afternoons in my dorm often feel like camp,
.with so many of the female students walking back and forth between one another’s rooms, trying to figure out what to wear or how to style their hair.
Because these buildings are so Jewish, we sometimes forget that others live there, too. Last year, a few weeks into the spring semester, an observant female student hung an “Asher Yatzar” (prayer said after using the bathroom) sign outside of the restrooms. Around this time, a group of male students took it upon themselves to post Shabbat candle-lighting times on the bulletin board. Ultimately, there were complaints by some of the non-Jewish residents that they felt “dominated” and “pressured” by all the Jewish signs in the halls. While we never intended to offend anyone, and promptly removed the signs, we later reflected on the irony that it was the non-Jews who felt out of place in the secular college dorms.
In seminary, one of my teachers advised me to “never learn Torah in a college library,” referring to all colleges, even Jewish ones. He felt that if one approaches Torah in the same way she approaches history, literature or philosophy, she will eventually lose sight of the intrinsic beauty within Torah, and come to view it as another subject, or “just another piece of ancient writing.” With all due respect to this rabbi—he’s very well known and venerated in Israel—I wholeheartedly disagree. It’s uplifting to look around the University of Maryland and see Jews learning Torah in all areas of the campus. On the third floor of the main library, for example, is the Jewish studies section. Books are filed under the call letters “BM,” which we Jewish students jokingly say stands for “beit midrash.” There are rows and rows of books, running the gamut from traditional sifrei kodesh like Tanach and Talmud to obscure medieval Torah commentaries to modern works on contemporary Jewish issues. It is not unusual to find, in this section, students engaged in stimulating discussions with their chavrutot. This wonderful resource at the university is something that should be taken advantage of, not avoided.
This semester, the Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) couple at Maryland, Rabbi Eli and Naomi Kohl, started a student kollel in which students learn Torah either five or ten hours a week. To commit to learning ten hours a week, in addition to having a full course load and homework, is very difficult. But the fact that so many students choose to do so is downright inspiring. That students choose to learn Torah—despite a lack of time and despite it not being mandatory—means they personally feel the importance of learning and actually want to do it.
Recently, I ran into an old friend of mine at a wedding. She’s attending a local seminary that offers a BA upon the completion of its two-year program. I told her about my life at Maryland, and she said to me, “I don’t understand how you’re still frum. If I was living on campus at a secular university, I would not be religious today.” There were a few things I wanted to say to her, but I decided to make a simple point: her comment proves the high caliber of the observant students at Maryland. In a place where no one is watching over us or making us do anything, not only have most of us not lost faith or given up, but we have actively made the choice to grow and to continue to strengthen our commitment to Judaism.
Beverly Kramer is a junior at the University of Maryland. She grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and attended Shalheves High School for Girls in Baltimore, Maryland, and Darchei Binah Seminary in Jerusalem.