Jewish student finds faith on a Catholic campus

Simone Bernstein

By Simone A. Bernstein

In high school, I was not one of those students who spent hours perusing college catalogues or scrutinizing those big thick guides to colleges. The ideal college in my mind was one with about 5,000 undergraduates in a warm and temperate climate, located close to a metropolitan area, with a major airport offering non-stop direct flights home, and had a Hillel or Jewish Student Union on the campus.

So how did I end up at St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan college, located in rural upstate New York, with fewer than 2,000 students? In addition, it’s cold (and snowy) enough in winter to warrant wearing thick winter boots and a heavy jacket; it’s located far from a major airport, meaning no direct flights home; it has only two active Jewish students (myself and one other) and it lacks a Hillel or Jewish Student Union on campus.


After touring and visiting a few campuses, I knew I wanted a small college campus environment. The thought of sitting in a lecture hall with over 400 freshmen was less than appealing. St. Bonaventure provided a small, friendly campus on the East Coast with a strong health sciences program. Since I had a strong interest in healthcare, St. Bonaventure offered an eight-year combined BS/MD program, which meant I would have direct admittance to medical school after completing my undergraduate education (provided I did not commit a crime and maintained my sanity). I hesitantly put St. Bonaventure on my list.

The summer before my senior year of high school, my mom and I made the trek from the airport with our trusted GPS to western New York. On that delightfully warm day, I fell in love with the feel of the campus; the faculty, staff and students on campus were friendly, warm and welcoming. I even visited the small synagogue in the community, where I now volunteer at its religious school.  

Catholic Universities like Georgetown and Boston College offer Jewish students a Hillel, a place for Jewish students to gather. To the best of my knowledge, I would be the only active Jewish student on campus at St. Bonaventure. Last year, the Jewish population doubled, when another student arrived.  I appreciate her friendship. We value having each other.  We drive to synagogue together, share holidays and traveled to Israel on Birthright last winter break.  

Growing up in St. Louis with a reasonably sizeable Jewish population and as an active member and participant in services at Congregation Shaare Emeth, I continued to participate as an assistant teacher in its religious school program, after my bat mitzvah and confirmation.  My faith is important to me.  Sister Margaret, the president of St. Bonaventure University, as well as the faculty, staff and student body here, have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome, accepted and appreciated.

On the Jewish New Year, Sister Margaret thoughtfully presented me with a basket of crisp New York apples and locally produced honey. Sister Margaret made sure that I had a ride to the synagogue in town.  I was honored and touched when she invited me to a Shabbat dinner in my honor with a Jewish member of the Board of Trustees for the university. I am always sought out and included in interfaith celebrations to represent the Jewish faith with a prayer. This past April, I received tremendous support from the entire university when I organized a campus-wide Holocaust Remembrance event.

As I strive to define the role religion will play in my life, I lean towards a combination of my parents’ view. My dad defines practicing Judaism as studying Hebrew, respecting the laws of the Torah and Commandments and regularly attending services. My mom describes religion as being a nice person. I am somewhere in between. While my definition of religion is fluid, I appreciate and have the utmost respect for St. Bonaventure University where Franciscan values respect and appreciate every religion.