I'm not sure when I first went to Friday night services and dinner at the JRC -- the Jewish Religious Center -- at Williams. But I'm pretty sure it was the first Friday of my freshman year, fall of 1992, a few months short of 25 years ago. College was new, and I wanted something familiar. Sure enough, davening the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat was comforting, and WCJA (the Williams College Jewish Association) offered a way of meeting new people, and also there was a home-cooked dinner made by students in the JRC's kosher kitchen. I went back. And I went back again. Going to Shabbat at the JRC became part of my routine.
This week I'm returning to Friday nights at the JRC, now as the interim Jewish chaplain to the College. During my days at the College this week I've been re-acclimating myself to what used to be a familiar environment. Much of the campus is as it was when I was a student, though of course there are new buildings -- new structures in places that used to be open and empty, or new structures in place of old ones -- and new names to learn. What once was Baxter Hall (the student union building, home of mailboxes, a dining hall, a snack bar, and WCFM radio station, among other things) is now Paresky -- where my office is.
But the JRC feels much the same to me now as it did then. It's still a white, airy wedding cake of a structure, lined with bookshelves, art, and plush couches. Another thing that hasn't changed is that Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services aren't led by the Jewish chaplain, but rather by students. This empowers the students to take their spiritual lives into their own hands instead of depending on a clergyperson to create spiritual and liturgical life for them. I remember how important that was to me when I was an undergrad, and I'm grateful that that tradition of student leadership hasn't changed in the intervening decades.
Returning now as staff to an institution where I was once a student is a fascinating experience. From this vantage I begin to see things about the whole institution that weren't obvious to me when I was immersed in it as a student. I'm also aware that I need to be careful not to superimpose my experiences from then over what today's students are experiencing now. I've been there a week, and already I can tell that the institution has changed in some interesting ways. Today there is a vibrant chaplaincy team working together to support the complex tapestry of multi-faith campus community life. That didn't exist 25 years ago.
But one thing that I suspect hasn't changed (much) is Friday nights at the JRC. Kabbalat Shabbat services are still student-led, just as they were then (though they're no longer using denominational prayerbooks -- now they use the Purple Valley Siddur, created just for use at WCJA.) Shabbat dinner is still planned, shopped-for, and prepared by students, just as it was then. I know that far more students come to dinner now than used to in my day. I'm looking forward to getting to know them, and to learning about each unique soul who chooses to infuse their weekend at this secular institution with a sense of Shabbat holiness.
In college my dear friend David (now Rabbi David, my ALEPH co-chair) wore a kippah every Friday night, even after leaving the JRC. He would wear his kippah all evening, walking back to his dorm, or going to whatever social opportunity presented itself after our time at the JRC. It was a consciousness-raiser for him, a way of reminding himself that it was a a time out of time, even after he had re-entered the flow of secular campus life. (I think of that even now, sometimes, when I wear my kippah in secular spaces.) I'm pretty sure that if he could see me at WCJA tonight, he would be pleased for me -- and for this community that I'm now blessed to serve.