More than 100 Princeton University alumni and current students gathered on Feb. 12 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yavneh House, the university’s Orthodox Jewish student organization.
Participants in the day-long celebration reminisced about the challenges of forming a Yavneh chapter at Princeton in the early 1960s, at a time when a “silent quota” on Jews was easing at the Ivy Leagues.
And they celebrated the efforts to launch a Princeton chapter of Yavneh National Religious Students Association, to provide kosher food, Torah studies, prayer services, and social opportunities.
Rabbi Daniel Greer, who now heads the Yeshiva of New Haven in Connecticut, was one of the first Orthodox Jews to enroll at Princeton as an undergraduate in 1956. In a panel titled “Yavneh: From Hippies to iPhones,” Greer discussed his struggle to maintain his observant lifestyle on a campus made up of only 8 percent Jews, many of whom he described as “closet Jews.”
Even the Hillel rabbi who served as chaplain at the time masked his Jewishness by concealing the mezuza in his office and opting for the title of “Mr.” rather than “Rabbi” on his nameplate, Greer told NJJN, echoing recollections of many of the alumni present.
“The Hillel rabbi told me that after three days on campus I would be eating treif,” said Greer. “I was the second Jewish student to go through the school and keep kosher. Many students came there kosher but didn’t finish that way.”
At Princeton, Greer wore the same Ivy League “Joe College uniform” as his peers — “tan chinos with a buckle in the back, a blue Oxford shirt, and a heather-green Shetland sweater,” he told the audience in the multipurpose room of the Frist Student Center.
But unlike Greer’s peers who gathered in the social clubs, mealtimes were spent in his room, where he heated up food his mother packed when he went home to New York City for each Shabbat. He often shared meals with another observant student, Abe Kaufman, who became Yavneh’s first president.
“The main issue as an Orthodox student at Princeton was the loneliness, which was almost palpable,” Greer recalled. “I got the physical and academic sustenance, but I was sorely lacking in emotional sustenance.”
Kaufman, a resident of Queens, also addressed the audience. “I was totally out of my element in the WASPy social scene of Princeton,” he said. “Outside of New York, words like kosher, chutzpah, and mazel were unknown. Being Jewish was like an inside joke. The idea of starting a kosher eatery there was unheard of.”
The creation of Yavneh and its kosher dining facility slowly began to change the face of Judaism on campus, said Dr. Rivkah Blau of New York City, in her opening remarks prior to the first panel.
Blau, a graduate of Barnard and Columbia, was one of the founders of Yavneh National Religious Students Association. She recalled how her father, the late Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, heard about the difficulties Greer and Kaufman were facing. He called Milton Levy, owner of Levy Brothers, the former Elizabeth department store. Levy himself had undergone similar difficulties as a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s.
“He told me to consult with my mother and make a list of everything that would be necessary for a kosher home and to bring the list to his store,” said Blau, who teaches English at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck. “When I came to his office, he handed me his charge card and told me to buy everything on the list. My father provided siddurim and a sefer Torah.”
Yavneh first met at a rental home on Olden Street, later moving to Wiggins Street. In 1971 a kosher dining hall was formed on campus in Stevenson Hall. In 1993 Yavneh moved to the university’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel.
Today, Yavneh offers kosher food, daily prayer services, student-led study sessions, and Talmud classes taught by Blau’s husband, Rabbi Yosef Blau, director of religious guidance at Yeshiva University, and her brother, JEC dean Rabbi Elazar Mayer Teitz.
Jews currently make up 13 percent of Princeton’s 5,000 undergraduates. Among them is Avital Hazony, a senior from Jerusalem who organized Yavneh’s anniversary event. Hazony’s parents met through Yavneh, and married in Princeton, where Hazony was born.
“Today we are showing our deepest gratitude to alumni who made Yavneh what it is today, enabling us to live and learn here the way we do now,” Hazony said in the opening remarks. “It used to be very hard to be Jewish and observant at Princeton. People don’t realize what opportunities for Jewish students there are here now.”
For alumna Suzanne Last Stone of New York City, if it weren’t for Yavneh, her Orthodox parents would not have allowed her to enroll at Princeton. A professor of Jewish law at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, Last Stone was a member of the second class of women admitted to Princeton in 1970.
“Princeton was the forming ground for my professional life. It allowed me free rein to study Judaic studies and take my senior year at Hebrew University,” she said. “It gave me the sense that Jewish texts and ideas were enormously valued for public intellectual life.”
Highland Park resident Barry Levinson, who graduated in 1977, said he enjoyed reminiscing with Yavneh friends at the anniversary.
“I was a ‘Conservadox’ Jew on the path to becoming Orthodox, so it was very important to me to have a Jewish community,” Levinson told NJJN. “It was transparent that one could be an Orthodox Jew and be welcome at an Ivy League college.”
Panelist Marilyn Berger Schlachter, a child therapist from University Hills, Ohio, described her Princeton years as transformational. She was among the first class of 90 women admitted to the school in 1969 and was there when the kosher dining hall opened.
“It was very exciting to be there at that time and to help build the Orthodox community,” she said. “Princeton has certainly transformed from a few Jewish students eating in their rooms to a full-fledged Orthodox community.”