Torah for the Working Class:
Hearing the Unique Voice and Needs of Every Jewish College Student

Photo credit: Jackson Krule

By Arielle Braude

I recently met Yosef, a student who gave up a spot at Yale University to enroll at a City University of New York (CUNY) commuter school. After spending the last several weeks reading in the news cycle about wealthy parents who engage in alleged criminal conduct to get their children into elite colleges, some may find Yosef’s decision surprising. “I was accepted at Yale with a full ride,” he told me, “but my parents do shift work to make ends meet. I fill in when they can’t work. I would never move that far away and leave them hanging.”

Over 85% of American Jews go to college, according to a 2007 Hillel study. When we imagine college, we picture grassy lawns, big football teams, elite university spaces, and research labs. There are meal plans and dorm rooms, school orientations and libraries stocked with computers.

For a significant number of people, however, the college experience is more like Yosef’s: commuting long distances each day, finding a job that will contribute to a family’s income, and balancing work and school with commitments to parents and grandparents. It often involves translating one’s home language into professional language and navigating the unseen vicissitudes of life. Students skip lunch for lack of funds. Research suggests that 48% of City University of New York (CUNY) students have been food insecure in the past 30 days. Depression and anxiety can go untreated for lack of resources.

This is also my mother’s story. She was the daughter of working-class European immigrants growing up in South Philadelphia, commuting to Temple University by day and coming home to make dinner and care for her parents at night. She did all of this while balancing part-time jobs and school work.

And this is what I witnessed while working as the assistant director at Hunter College Hillel last year. I met students who traveled four hours a day on public transportation commuting to campus, hoping to be the first person in their family to graduate from college. I met people who told me the only reason they could make time for Jewish life is because we provided a lunch they would otherwise not eat.

Young people will often ask me what Torah has to say about prominent public issues such as immigration, tax cuts or government spending. These conversations take on an entirely different tone when they are had with working-class immigrants or children of immigrants who benefit from government spending but want to shape their own economic destiny.

We in the broader Jewish community rarely hear from this voice of working-class Torah. Some scarcely know it exists.

Through Hillel’s Jewish Learning Fellowship, the largest Jewish educational program on campus today, I have studied Torah with hundreds of college students in New York City. We serve elite private institutions like Columbia and NYU and commuter campuses like Hunter, Baruch, and the College of Staten Island. We ask students to relate the voices of our tradition to their lives – their ambitions, abiding questions and deep concerns as emerging adults. I deeply value the critical insights of students who have had a myriad of opportunities – travel, internships, prestigious summer programs – when we study. But there is also a unique voice of Torah study that comes from the student struggling to make ends meet, desperately wanting to be loyal to her family while seeking to flourish in an open society.

I hear this unique voice when students relate texts about obligation not to social or scholarly commitments but to their obligation to pay for college themselves. The unique voice is there when students ask questions about why young people just like themselves are being deported and why public mental health resources are limited. Perhaps more important, I hear it when students speak about their triumphs overcoming everyday red tape, making connections between the Torah we read and their long subway rides home, or balancing a budget and making their rent. These are things that many college students never ask.

Young people on these campuses represent the best of the American Dream and the Jewish American Dream. The American Dream – that education will provide the opportunity for people to climb social classes, provide for their families and live a stable life. The Jewish American Dream – that these young people will maintain loyalty to our tradition while participating fully in an open, cosmopolitan society.

If they are to achieve this dream, they need support. Jewish life on these campuses is wildly under-resourced. Commuter campuses lack the passionate alumni support of Big Ten Schools. The working-class Jewish parents at these schools cannot write large checks to build a new kosher cafeteria. The working-class Jewish students in cities like New York, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles need communal support to ensure that they too can live out the American and Jewish American dream.

Over the years, UJA-Federation of New York and other local federations have shouldered this burden almost entirely. More recently, the Aronson Family Foundation has offered critical leadership in supporting Jewish life on commuter campuses.

Can we ensure that the Jewish community will prioritize investing in the Jewish life of working-class students, and not just the privileged? When might we understand that poverty also includes young people working two and three jobs to make ends meet, and that those young people also have a right to vibrant Jewish life? We are all responsible.

In the meantime, Hillel’s JLF educators will be here meeting students where they are – between classes, in their counties and boroughs, at times that work for them, with resources that meet their needs, listening carefully for their voice in our Torah.

Arielle Braude is the manager of Hillel International’s Jewish Learning Fellowship, the largest Jewish educational program on college campuses.