“I never found Princeton a terribly comfortable place in terms of my being a Jew…”
–Morton Denn ‘61
In 1993, the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) opened at 70 Washington Ave. The mission of the CJL was to provide a place for all Jews (orthodox, conservative, reform or secular) to eat, worship, and socialize. Although the Center primarily served Jewish needs, it also allowed Jewish students to dine with their non-Jewish friends. The struggle to gain campus recognition was a long endeavor that lasted more than a century. Before the CJL opened, Jewish students gathered at Murray-Dodge, in off-campus housing, or in their dorm rooms, keeping Judaism and Jewishness alive.
The Seeley G. Mudd Library has recently processed transcripts of several interviews with Jewish alumni from the classes of 1937-1974. Abigail Klionsky ’14 conducted the interviews as part of her senior thesis, “In the Tiger’s Lair: The Development of Jewish Student Life at Princeton University 1915-1972.” The Abigail Klionsky Oral History Collection on Jewish Student Life at Princeton reveals experiences of Jewish students in detail, including their participation in religious services, involvement in social activities, and their overall Jewish identity.
Although a non-sectarian institution today, Princeton’s tradition is deeply intertwined with Protestant Christianity. Until the early 1900s, students took devotional Bible classes, and chapel attendance was mandatory for freshmen until 1964. Joseph Schein ’37 recalls that missing chapel was more serious than cutting class. Multiple accounts in the Board of Trustees Records list students on probation for missing services. Meanwhile, some classes met on Saturday mornings, in direct conflict with the observance of the Jewish Sabbath. Director of Admission Dean Radcliffe Heermance also had a reputation as an anti-Semite despite his denial that he established Jewish quotas.
Being Jewish also had social consequences. Eating Clubs were at the center of Princeton’s social life as the only available dining facilities for upperclassmen. Most clubs recruited and accepted new members through a process called “Bicker.” Much like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description in This Side of Paradise, clubs like Ivy and Cap and Gown accepted students based on popularity and socio-economic background and shut out those that did not fit the mold. As the odd men out, some Jews instead joined sign-in clubs like Prospect and Gateway or ate independently in their dorm rooms.
Aside from having minority status, some Jewish students were from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their desire to maintain their grades caused other students to label them as “grinds” (nerds). In his interview, Ernest Rubenstein ’50 said that most students did not talk about schoolwork and even lied about needing to go to the library.
For some, the social alienation was intense. Rubenstein states, “It was very painful. But it was a good learning experience.” Some of the interviews address the Bicker of 1958 or “Dirty Bicker” when a significant number of Jewish students did not receive bids for the eating clubs. Jim Grielsheimer ’59 recalls the event as very upsetting and provides details about his service in the Bicker committee that provided bids for the excluded students.
Services were an important part of Jewish identity. Frank Glick ’16 and David Kempner ’17, organized the first Jewish services but the meetings were sporadic and informal. Sensing a need for Jewish camaraderie in addition to services, Marcus Lester Aaron ’20 organized the first Jewish student association in 1920.
One of the most memorable events in Princeton Jewish history at Princeton was the inauguration of the Hillel on January 10, 1947. The religious service was led by Rabbi Lelyveld with remarks made by Albert Einstein and the Assistant Dean of the Chapel, Rev. Burton A. MacClean.
Jewish services were mostly conducted Friday nights at Murray-Dodge Hall until the opening of the CJL. While having Jewish services fulfilled the needs of some, a few students had no desire to embrace Judaism or on the opposite end of the spectrum found the services to be insufficient for their religious needs. Robert Bloom ’51 describes the services conducted by Rabbi Irving Levey in the 1940s as reform and “religion lite,” without celebration of Jewish holidays or kosher dining.
In 1961, a group of students founded the Yavneh House, which served as a kosher dining facility and alternate space in which to have Orthodox services. Zielenziger ’74 describes his experiences at the off-campus Yavneh including conducting minyans (groups of 10 men needed for certain religious rituals) and eating meals made by the beloved kosher cook, Molly Greene.
Five students, including Marilyn Schlacter ’73 and Diana Savit ’73, led the first efforts to establish kosher dining on campus. They arranged to have TV dinners served at Wilson College. In 1971, Stevenson Hall opened a new Kosher wing in response to continued demand.
More recent Jewish activities have also included events such as the Harvard-Yale-Princeton colloquium, the Latke-Hamentaschen Debates, protesting university investments and creating a Jewish newspaper (The Outpost). Some incidents, such as the writing of anti-semitic slurs at a McCormick Hall bathroom and the posting of anti-semitic posters against USG member Eric Yollick ’83, revealed that the acceptance of Jews was not universal. Despite this, the CJL allowed Jews to celebrate their heritage with the support of University administration.
Aaron, Marcus Lester Correspondence (AC420)
Athletic Programs Collection (AC042)
Eating Clubs Records (AC019)
General Princeton Theater Collection (AC385)
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Historical Photograph Collection, Faculty Photographs Series (AC059)
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Klionsky, Abigail. “In the Tiger’s Lair: The Development of Student Life at Princeton University 1915-1972.”
Klionsky, Abigail Oral History Collection on Jewish Student Life at Princeton (AC424)
Office of the Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel Records (AC144)
Reel Mudd Blog, Being Jewish at Princeton: from F. Scott Fitzgerald days to the Center of Jewish Life.
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Some things never completely change. It looks as if we still have a some way to go before Jews and other minorities have their unique beliefs and practices accomodated in our colleges and societies. I must admit ofcourse that huge strides have been made towards that goal.