Orthodox Jews do not activate electrical devices, write or drive on Shabbat, which lasts from sundown on Friday until Saturday at sundown. For Brunonians who practice Orthodox Judaism, that means limited homework and no card access to dorms for 24 hours each week. But Orthodox Jews at Brown say practicing their faith in college is about more than a list of restrictions on their Saturday activities.
Fewer than 20 students self-identify as Orthodox Jewish, compared to the roughly 1,400 Jewish students enrolled at Brown, said Megan Nesbitt, associate director of Brown Hillel. On a national level, based on the latest figures, there are 5.6 million American Jews, of which about 8 percent are Orthodox, according to Michael Satlow, associate professor of Judaic Studies and Religious Studies.
Because of the challenges Orthodox Jewish students encounter at secular universities like Brown, those who do choose to come to College Hill are self-selective, Nesbitt said. Whereas Orthodox Jewish students at some universities form their own somewhat separate religious communities, Brown's Orthodox community is smaller and less able to do so, Nesbitt said. But Brown's small Orthodox Jewish community and students' appreciation of "being challenged to think," create a more integrated community for Orthodox Jews at Brown than other colleges, said Nesbitt, who also worked at the University of Michigan Hillel.
"The (Orthodox Jewish) students that come here are the students that can or are able to take leadership in forming their own religious experience at Brown," she said.
Sam Schmelzer '11 said that when he was growing up, his family was moving toward Orthodox Judaism. But his decision to become an Orthodox Jew was a personal one, made after exploring the reasons behind his beliefs.
Schmelzer, who calls himself a "moderate Orthodox Jew," said he believes that the Torah is divinely inspired and that oral law, including the Talmud, is equally important.
"I have an obligation to follow what is written in that text," he said. "Because the text can be vague and ambiguous ... we have the concept of what is called the oral law, which was passed down by word of mouth."
The Talmud and other works of Jewish law began to arise in the period of the rabbis, from 70 CE to 640 CE, Satlow said. Orthodox Jews believe their tradition "goes all the way back to Moses," he said.
But even among Orthodox Jews, there are differing beliefs, Schmelzer said. "Even if you meet two people of the same sect, they may have very different opinions about political or philosophical issues," he said. "It's very individualized in terms of how you approach certain things."
Satlow agreed, adding that there are various responses to Jewish law. "There are different strains of people who call themselves Orthodox," he said.
For example, non-modern Orthodox Jews tend not to emphasize higher secular education as much as modern Orthodox Jews and may be less likely to decide to attend Brown, Satlow said. "You most likely won't find them on this campus by definition," she said.
Schmelzer said his lifestyle and beliefs made his decision to come to Brown especially difficult. "I do not see it as the most comfortable or ideal place for an Orthodox Jew," he said. "(But) upon coming here, I think it's a lot easier than people realize."
Though Schmelzer was initially worried about accommodating his dietary requirements at Brown, the kosher meal plan the University offers has so far suited him just fine. While other students swipe their ID cards with Jose or Gail at the Ratty, Schmelzer trades his ID card for a key to the kosher kitchen, where he picks up his meal. "Food is a main worry," he said. "The kosher meal plan makes things a lot simpler."
The plan, which is run out of the Ratty and offers food prepared by a local caterer, provides students with kosher food ranging from macaroni and cheese to hot dogs. Schmelzer said there are also many packaged goods at Jo's, the Blue Room, and the Gate which are kosher as well.
"Then again, different people have different criteria for what is kosher," Schmelzer said.
As for following the laws of the Sabbath, Schmelzer said he believes there are 39 general categories of work, all of which are forbidden on the Sabbath.
"Generally speaking, when the Talmud speaks about Jewish laws they tend to speak in more general terms. It's not like 'can you light candles' it's like 'can you start a fire.' There's kind of a debate between various Orthodox sects and various non-Orthodox sects as for how to approach some of these ideas and new technologies," he said.
Brown-RISD Hillel aids Orthodox Jewish students by keeping certain parts of their building Shabbat observant, Nesbitt said. "People come here to study on Shabbat," she said. "There's a couple of rooms that are not electronic, and we ask people, 'Don't use your laptops in that space.' "
Hillel also accommodates the needs of Orthodox Jewish students by supporting the kosher meal plan and helping students who need to take holidays off, Nesbitt said.
Though Hillel does not offer services for every Orthodox observance, they do hold regular Shabbat services on Friday nights as well as meditation services.
During Orthodox services, men and women pray on opposite sides of a mechitza, a separating structure. "The physical qualities of this physical separation will differ," Schmelzer said. "It could be really high and made out of wood where you don't even see (the other gender). It varies in height and opaqueness."
Compared to non-Orthodox circles, where men and women serve equally according to whomever wants to do what, Schmelzer said religious life in Orthodox circles is often dominated by men. "I feel there is a limitation to the amount a woman can participate in certain areas of Jewish life, just as I feel there is a limitation to the amount a man can participate in certain areas," he said.
Schmelzer does not attend services at Hillel, but rather attends Shabbat services Friday night and Saturday in a Providence synagogue not far from Brown's campus. He said Providence's Orthodox Jewish community has been "extremely accommodating." He has been invited to the homes of other synagogue members, a particularly welcome invitation during the holidays, he said.
But at Brown, Schmelzer sees an opportunity to combine his religion with his secular education. "There is a value given to secular education," he said. "As a Jewish person you're supposed to bring Jewish values and influence into those realms when you're dealing with them. In that sense I'm trying to fuse both halves of who I am."