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Bridging Cultures: Two Duke Students’ Initiative to Share Jewish Traditions

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Amidst a global climate of rising antisemitism, Duke students foster understanding and celebrate diversity through the power of Shabbat

Large group of students in space, two students toss challah bread to them around table full of food

Last summer, while interning at a large company, Duke student Rebecca Edelman ‘24 came to a tough realization. Out of hundreds of interns, she knew of only three other Jewish interns.

“Many of my friends had not even met a Jewish person before,” she said. “I’ve had people ask me things like ‘what is a Jew?’ or tell me that they ‘thought Jews were extinct.’”

As someone who took pride in her Jewish identity, Rebecca wondered how she could share a piece of that with her friends. And so came the idea to host a Shabbat dinner for her fellow interns. Shabbat is the weekly day of rest in Judaism; it begins at sundown each Friday night and continues until Saturday evening, and is traditionally observed with candle-lighting, singing, prayers, and a festive, communal dinner.

Rebecca and her summer roommate led their friends in traditional blessings over candles, hand washing, wine, and challah. It was a night of community, joy, learning, and cultural appreciation. The positive experience had a snowball effect. “That night was one of my proudest moments, and I was absolutely positive I wanted to do it again once back at Duke,” said Rebecca.

Fast forward to the fall 2023 semester back on Duke’s campus. The semester started off as usual, but Rebecca, like so many around the world, was shaken on October 7th, when Hamas terrorists waged the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust – killing more than 1,200 Israelis and taking hundreds of civilians hostage.

After the October 7th attack and Israel’s military response in Gaza, Rebecca felt the repercussions of rising antisemitism on a local level. “I lost multi-year long friendships with people who suddenly had no empathy for what I was going through,” she said. “As I saw social media posts from people I considered friends, not only denying what happened on October 7th but even posting blatantly false information, I realized that the ignorance I always knew people had about Jews was something really dangerous.”

Rebecca felt deflated watching people she knew “confidently reduce what it means to be Jewish down to a few stereotypical and largely incorrect bullet points.” She felt that the wide diversity she so cared about within Judaism was being framed as nonexistent. 

“They had never met a non-white Jew before, and therefore they didn’t really exist,” she said of the assumptions. “They had never met a poor Jew before, and therefore they didn’t really exist. They had never met a religious Jew before, and therefore they didn’t really exist.”

Rebecca turned to her Duke roommate, fellow Jewish student Delaney Eisen ‘24. They talked about the worries they felt given the antisemitism displayed on social media while also feeling a responsibility to continue being proudly and outwardly Jewish. Rebecca thought back to her summer experience, the newfound appreciation and respect her fellow interns expressed toward her beloved Judaism, and decided that upon returning to campus following winter break, “I would host the Shabbat I have wanted to host since June.”

Rebecca and Delany designed a menu that aimed to reflect the ethnic diversity of the Jewish people. They included Ashkenazi dishes they had grown up with: brisket, noodle kugel, schnitzel, and matzah ball soup, but they also included a variety of dishes that originate from outside of Europe: tahdig, a saffron crispy rice eaten by Jews from Persia; sanbat wat, a chicken stew eaten by Jews from Ethiopia; matbucha, a spicy tomato-pepper dip from Morocco; and manti, dumplings eaten by Bukharan Jews from Central Asia. They wrote out placards with the names and origins of each dish for their guests.

“My favorite was making malabi, a rice pudding dessert that I had in Israel for the first time two years ago,” said Delaney of the rose water dessert originating from Turkey.

After three straight days of cooking came the time to celebrate Shabbat in a packed house filled to the brim with more than 40 friends. Rebecca and Delaney led the traditional Shabbat prayers. They also participated in a Sephardic tradition of throwing challah rather than passing it around. Rebecca stood in front of their friends and shared how meaningful it was to them that they were there to share a meal together filled with food and culture that was new to them.

“Looking around the room while [Rebecca] said those words, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of community,” said Delaney. She was touched by her friends’ genuine interest in the cultural origins of the dishes, their questions about the meaning of the Jewish blessings recited, and their earnest attempts to try – “like I do every High Holidays,” she said – to sing along to prayers in a language they did not know.

Rebecca and Delaney reached out to Rabbi Elana Friedman, Campus Rabbi and Jewish Chaplain at Duke University. Jewish Life at Duke (JLD), a department within Duke’s Division of Student Affairs as well as an accredited Hillel, is committed to empowering Jewish students to learn and grow intellectually and spiritually; to inspiring and nurturing personal paths to Jewish identity; and to cultivating community and friendship. As part of that mission, JLD offers funding for students who create and host their own Jewish experiences, finding ways to personalize their practice, while honoring the roots of ancient Jewish tradition. Rebecca and Delaney’s Shabbat dinner was just that, and Jewish Life at Duke provided funding to make it possible.

“JLD and Rabbi Elana have consistently shown me that there are different ways to be Jewish,” said Delaney, who participated alongside Rebecca in JLD’s Jewish Learning Fellowship, a 10-week cohort-style seminar that encourages students to explore life’s big questions through a Jewish lens, in the fall of 2020. In this program, “I got to be in conversation with Jews from across the U.S., talking about important topics across the board.” These conversations helped Delaney feel comfortable sharing her culture with others, recognizing the diversity within the Jewish community. “I am so glad the Shabbat dinner was possible through the support of JLD and Rabbi Elana, my roommate Rebecca, and the amazing little community we’ve built within Duke.”

Rebecca reflected back on what she deems one of the happiest nights of her life, gathering people to share aspects of her Jewish culture. “I am proud to be Jewish, and since this summer, I’ve realized how much joy it brings me to share it with others,” she said. “Plus, I really love feeding people, which is sort of Jewish in its own way.”

Opportunities for Students

Students, did you know you have two upcoming opportunities to host your own Jewish experience for friends and peers?

  1. Host your own Shabbat dinner on Friday, March 8th, 2024 as part of Jewish Life at Duke’s “Sha-Bayit: Host Your Own Shabbat” Program! As a host, you will be practicing the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim – welcoming guests. We provide the challah, grape juice, blessing cards, and food for a full Shabbat dinner. You will provide the space to make a memorable Shabbat experience for your friends and guests. The dinner will be a kosher meal from the Freeman Center Café, unless you would prefer to provide your own food, in which case we will provide you with funding reimbursement up to ten dollars per guest. Register here to Host Your Own Shabbat in your dorm/residence hall/etc by Friday, March 1st.
  2. Host your own Passover Seder on Monday, April 22nd, 2024 as part of Jewish Life at Duke’s annual “Host Your Own Seder” Program! We’ll provide everything you need including seder plates with the ritual food items, haggadot, paper goods, and a full dinner (or you can choose to cook and get reimbursed), you provide the space, the hospitality, and lead the seder. Many students choose to put their own twist on the tradition by giving themes to their seders; we’ve seen everything from a social justice seder to a Duke athletes team seder to a quad-specific seder to an Ariana Grande-themed seder! Register Here to Host Your Own Passover Seder by Thursday, March 21st.

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About Jewish Life at Duke

Jewish Life at Duke (JLD) is the hub for all things Jewish on Duke’s campus. An accredited Hillel as well as a department within Duke University’s Division of Student Affairs, Jewish Life at Duke is guided by a mission to empower Jewish students to learn and grow intellectually and spiritually; to inspire and nurture personal paths to Jewish identity; and to cultivate community and friendship. Comprising the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and the Rubenstein-Silvers Hillel, JLD takes a pluralistic approach to Judaism to ensure that all Jewish students, regardless of affiliation, are welcome and included.

100% of JLD’s operating budget comes from donations from alumni, parents, and friends.
Become a donor to Jewish Life at Duke today.