Jewish life on a Jesuit campus

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Joanne Loiben remembers her early days at St. Louis University well — especially Sunday nights when the dorms would clear out for Mass.

“That was the first time I ever really realized I was a minority on campus and I felt the need to reach out and connect to other people who felt the same way I did,” said the political science major, now a senior at the school. “It can feel like you don’t have your identity on campus.”

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As Loiben worked to find her place as a Jew at a Jesuit school, she also found she wasn’t the only one searching for community. Sarah Markenson, a senior studying public policy, was looking for same thing.

“I had trouble finding my Jewish identity just because I wasn’t raised in a Jewish setting,” said Markenson. “I’m from Jeff City, which is a very Catholic town as well. I had difficulty discovering that and when I did I had to go out and find my own resources. It wasn’t really at SLU.”

Finding a niche is a challenge for anyone entering college, but Loiben, 22, and Markenson, 21, decided to do more than just find one – they decided to create one. The pair co-founded SLU Jews, an organization chartered late last month aiming to provide a sense of belonging for SLU’s small Jewish population as well as to better inform the campus community about Judaism.

Such a group already existed — sort of. A Jewish organization by the same name was meeting under the auspices of the campus ministry but it had little structure and few members. Loiben said she attended a couple of its gatherings but by her sophomore year its leaders had departed and the small group had essentially ceased to exist. She and Markenson responded by working with St. Louis Hillel at Washington University, where both attended services, to try and revive the organization. They hope that a formal chartering will give the group more staying power allowing SLU Jews to become a fixture at the school.

“It’s not only to serve as a Jewish presence on the SLU campus,” said Marisa Reby, campus and graduate student coordinator for St. Louis Hillel at Washington University, who acts as an advisor to SLU Jews, “but also as an outlet for Jewish students to educate about the culture of Judaism and Israel.”

Markenson and Loiben say they are thankful for assistance from Hillel for making SLU Jews a reality. They also credit SLU’s administration for being very supportive both of the group and expressions of Jewish spirituality on campus in general. The organization has about 10 to 20 active members, some of whom work to design upcoming programs.

“We try to do lunch if people are interested in that,” Markenson said. “We have a couple of students who like to get together as the Jewish community. When we’re together we like to plan events for the larger SLU community.”

The revived SLU Jews has already scheduled a Purim party that will be open to the campus March 24 and an Israeli musical event set for March 30.

Other events tackle more serious issues. For both women, Birthright Israel trips played a significant role in finding their Judaism, and they are often troubled by speakers, films or discussions critical of the Jewish State that they see promoted on campus. Loiben said she worries that anti-Zionist feelings may have intensified since the recent military action in Gaza.

“There is a significant number of students who don’t support Israel,” she said. “They’ve never been hostile to me because of it, but they are also not afraid to tell me their views.”

Markenson, who has written articles defending Israel in the campus newspaper, feels similarly, saying she first noticed anti-Israel sentiment during her freshman year. However, both say that the key is to stay proactive and upbeat, in order to present a different, more balanced picture of the Jewish State than students may see elsewhere.

“I feel the best method is always staying positive,” Loiben said. “I like to keep it educational so people have a real idea of the issues which are much more complicated than people think. Israel is not this place where people are shooting off rockets or killing innocent children. It’s a place with an incredible culture –the homeland of the Jews.”

While SLU Jews is not explicitly Zionist, its constitution does recognize the Jewish connection to Israel. The group is planning to host speaker Jacob Shrybman of the Sderot Media Center on March 19 and sponsor a panel discussion on March 31 as part of SLU’s Atlas Week diversity events to give views from both sides of the issue.

“We want to focus on the recent conflict,” Markenson said. “Not so much 1948 and 1967 but talk about the recent escalation in Gaza and how it has affected the US-Israeli relations.”

But while providing a voice for Israel is a part of the picture, the organization is essentially not political. It’s just a way for Jews to connect to each other and to a campus they enjoy being a part of.

“Over the years I’ve found that you can really make theology your own, make SLU your own,” noted Loiben, who is a theology minor and says her eventual plans may include rabbinical school. “I would like future kids applying to SLU to see that there is a Jewish group on campus that they can affiliate with and maybe they’ll want to come here as well.”