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Understanding Diversity

Questions and Answers with Hillel professional Sheila Katz, contributor to new interfaith book
by Shana Medel |Mar 15, 2019|Comments

Sheila Katz, vice president of student engagement and leadership at Hillel International, is a featured writer in the newly published guidebook, “Educating About Religious Diversity and Interfaith Engagement: A Handbook for Student Affairs” (Stylus Publishing). Geared for campus professionals, the book tackles religious diversity and interfaith engagement, offering sample programs, knowledge of different religions and versatile case studies.

Katz partnered with Rabbi Joshua Feigelson, former campus rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel, to co-write chapter 17, titled “Understanding Jewish Students on Campus.”

She recently spoke with Hillel News as part of Hillel’s ongoing author series. What follows are highlights from that conversation.

Almost every chapter of this book is written by a different leader in the religious community. How were you chosen to co-write the chapter about Jewish students on campus?

“I was asked along with my former Hillel colleague Rabbi Joshua Feigelson. As Hillel professionals, we worked closely with Interfaith Youth Core for years. And over time, we became close with Eboo Patel, its founder and executive director, and Mary Ellen Giess, its senior director of co-curricular partnerships. I was excited when I heard Eboo and Mary were working on a book that would help student affairs professionals better support students of all faiths on campus. And given our positive working relationship, they came to us to write the chapter about Jewish students. We were eager and honored to accept.”

Explain your writing process with co-author Rabbi Josh Feigelson.

“Because Josh and I worked together for many years on Ask Big Questions, we already had a rhythm in the way we write curriculum and work together. We brainstormed together based on our own experiences as Hillel professionals on campus — I was at North Carolina Hillel and Josh was at Northwestern University Hillel. We asked ourselves, ‘What do we want universities to be more aware of about Jewish students?’ We then posed that same question to Hillel directors and students. After we had a list of things that we wanted to communicate in our chapter, we thought about framing it in the sense of, ‘What does everyone need to know in order to understand who Jews are today?’”

You write, “Judaism is a religion; Jewishness is an identity.” Why is it important for campus educators to understand the distinction between Judaism and Jewishness?

“Jewish students often get grouped only into the space of religion. But there are many times where their Jewishness plays into their identity in spaces that don’t feel religious. Take Israel for example. Even though many students connect to Israel in diverse ways, many of them feel their relationship with Israel is part of their identity. And when you can understand that Israel is part of their identity, it changes the sensitivity a student affairs professional might have when engaging Jewish students about Israel and other topics.

“And many students who identify as ‘just Jewish’ say they often view being Jewish similar to somebody else’s culture or heritage, like being Italian. There’s a culture. There’s a language. There are foods. There are age-old traditions. In our chapter, we wanted to be inclusive of the different types of Jewish students who show up on college campuses. Being Jewish doesn’t look the same for everyone. It’s a religion to many people. And it’s a culture to many people. And there are still many other ways young Jews connect with their Jewishness. Our goal was to explain all the variables to help somebody who hasn’t encountered Jewish students before begin to understand their diverse needs.”

The chapter explains Judaism in a nutshell — holidays, kashrut, anti-Semitism, Israel. Why is it important for campus educators to have a firm grasp of these different elements of Judaism?

“Statistically speaking, most people are raised in a community where everybody looks like them and practices religion like them, and they settle in a community where everybody looks like them and practices religion like them. College is one of the only times where people are around great diversity. It’s an opportunity for people of all faith backgrounds to encounter one other and become acquainted with one another. And if we can do that in a way that creates more understanding, we’re equipping all students to be interfaith leaders when they leave campus.”

How does your chapter serve as a how-to guide for educators who want to engage in discussions about religious diversity? 

“The common thread throughout this chapter is there’s not one thing you can do to accommodate every Jewish student. And that makes it a little more complex for universities. We wanted campus professionals to understand just how different the needs of Jewish students are. And we feel like we went through what students need from their universities in order to be successful on campus. Food, navigating anti-Semitism, days off for holidays — all of these topics are addressed in our chapter.

“And although this book was intended for student affairs professionals, we also hope that professors will read it, especially the part about academic accommodations for Jewish students. There are so many Jewish holidays in the fall, right when the academic year is beginning. When one student is asking for academic accommodations for two days of Rosh HaShanah, another student is asking for one day off and a different student is asking for no days off, they’ll understand that all of these students are valuing their Jewishness in different ways. We don’t want professors to set policies that only favor certain students. We also don’t want them to schedule something massive on a Jewish holiday because it could make students of faith feel like they’re excluded from the campus experience.”

What do you hope readers take away from the chapter you co-wrote?

“There isn’t one way to be Jewish. There isn’t one way to look Jewish. And there’s not one way to explore Jewishness on campus. I hope readers learn to recognize organizations like Hillel as a resource and partner to navigate ways to make campus life more accessible to Jewish students and students of all faiths.”

What did you learn about non-Jewish students from reading the other chapters of the book?

“So often, Jewish students struggle with feeling like people don’t fully understand them. And those are the same challenges that students of other faiths — Muslim, Christian, Hindu, atheist — are dealing with on campus. While reading the different chapters, I realized there was a thread of similarities between the faiths, and there was also a thread differences.”

How do you think “Educating About Religious Diversity and Interfaith Engagement” will help educators build meaningful relationships on campus?

“Students on campus are of Generation Z. And Gen Z is coming to campus with greater diversity than any other generation before. With all the changes in diversity of who this generation is, faith is often left out when having conversations about how they’re trying to navigate who they are. Conversations about faith and interfaith engagement are a critical part of campus work. This is a way to put that at the forefront of people’s minds. It’ll help professionals create safe enough spaces for students to explore who they are in the world.”


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