Jewish alumna reflects on campus involvement

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Webster alumna Samantha Thal was involved with “Tribe: Jewish Student Council” while she attended Webster. While she said the organization never had high turnout, she had fun being involved.

Judaism is among the world’s oldest religions, dating back almost 4,000 years. However, Jewish people make up less than a quarter of 1% of the world’s current population. The U.S. is a little more diverse than the world today, with around 2% of people identifying as Jewish. In St. Louis, approximately 2% of residents are Jewish.

Webster University took in its first students in 1915. At this point in time, Webster was a school for women who wanted to be nuns. There wouldn’t be a male graduate until 1965. From that point, Webster has been accepting of students no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation and anything else that makes a student unique. There is even a religious studies course taught at the school.

During the 2021 Webster Involvement Fair, there were three Christian-based groups represented, including CRU and The Gathering.

When speaking to The Gathering specifically, the members were very open to having Jewish students at their events even if they don’t plan on converting. They said they accept everyone, no matter what religious beliefs they partake in.

One person who was involved in Jewish life on campus is alumna Samantha Thal, who is working toward becoming a rabbi. Thal was on the board for “Tribe: Jewish Student Council” at Webster University.

Samantha Thal, wearing a yellow shirt, stands at a table in the University Center. Thal and the other students were part of Tribe: Jewish Student Council. Photo contributed by Samantha Thal.

“Our events for Tribe were usually holiday celebrations with themed food and activities. My favorite event was a Passover event where we made our own matzah pizza and watched Rugrats Passover,” Thal said. “We never had a huge turnout and especially not Jewish students, but we had fun.”

Food is a very large part of Jewish culture and there is almost always some food for the holiday. For Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), there are apples and honey; for Purim (a holiday celebrating Queen Esther for stopping Haman from killing the Jews), there are hamantaschen (triangle pastries filled with fruit); and for Chanukah, there are latkes or potato pancakes.

Thal said one of the many things that helped bring students in is food, since food is something that everyone can agree is good. Now, this club could not be just about food and it wasn’t. Thal also mentioned that while there weren’t many Jewish students attending Tribe events, there was good religious conversation when there were Jewish students.

Thal graduated and is now in rabbinical school.

These days, Rabbi Hershey Novack is trying to keep Jewish population on campus at the universities in St. Louis. Novack is director of Chabad on Campus and Senior Campus Rabbi. He has been in that role for about 19 years now.

“Webster students have come to the Chabad House in University City, and we also offer an on-campus program at Webster called ‘The Network’ which is led by Yael Sabah. It is designed to reach out and engage Webster students through innovative programs and social services. We are privileged to receive a helping hand and support from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Yael is super-talented and I am optimistic. We are re-invigorating this program after a pause due to COVID-19 and I am excited for the future,” Novack said.

While there are Jewish students on campus, Webster’s Jewish student population lags behind those of other St. Louis-area universities: Washington University has a 22% Jewish population and Maryville has approximately 4%. Webster is currently sitting at less than 1%, per Hillel’s College Guide.

Along with Chabad, another way Jewish students here at Webster can get involved with Jewish-related clubs is by partnering with organizations like The Gathering. The Gathering has welcomed Jewish students to participate in its activities.

“I would like to see a culture where Jewish students don’t feel like they are alone … and I hope to be able to help contribute towards this goal along with Yael Sabah,” Novack said.

 

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Brian Rubin
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