As someone who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family and environment, attended Jewish kindergarten and day school from age two to 17, and then attended a learning-intensive girls seminary (also known as midreshah) for a year before starting UCLA, I experienced a lot of culture shock when I became a Bruin four years ago. Regardless of one’s background, it’s difficult to suddenly plunge into an environment with people who may hold very different values, beliefs and goals from your own. While I can’t provide much to people of other backgrounds, here’s what I’ve learned from four years at UCLA for other Orthodox or Torah-observant Bruins.
Coming from a yeshivah environment
If you attended a yeshivah for years before coming to UCLA, you might need some time to adjust to a wholly different atmosphere. It might be helpful to keep values and long-term goals in mind and as pop-up reminders on your phone. Check with your LOR (local Orthodox rabbi) if you have questions relating to topics such as shomer negiah (not touching an unrelated member of the opposite sex), which most immediately manifests in handshaking, and laws relating to yichud (not being secluded with an unrelated member of the opposite sex). If you don’t have an LOR or one you’re comfortable speaking to, any of the people listed under “General Resources” below would be knowledgeable, approachable, and non-judgmental.
School on chol ha’moed (the “Intermediate Days” of Passover and Shavuot)? That’s a judgment call, but expect to struggle if you take off a week from the quarter. Call your LOR and maybe type notes on your laptop instead of writing in a notebook. If you’re shy about shomer negiah, though, a good rule of thumb might be to simply state, “I don’t shake hands, but it’s great to meet you!” Just make sure to say it with confidence and stick with it. (To speak from experience, calling yourself a “germaphobe” will probably not go well. Sorry.)
It’s always best to ask for religious accommodation for Shabbat or a holiday as early as possible. If the professor posts the schedule ahead of time, or if I know I’ll have class on a holiday, I usually email the professor a week before the class starts. The email is typically along the following lines (with thanks to my sister):
Dear Dr. [Last Name],
I’m currently enrolled in your [Course Name] class for next quarter and am very much looking forward to it. However, I will be unable to attend lecture on [day], as it is a Jewish religious holiday. Would it be possible to make up the work in advance?
I then speak with the professor on the first day of class and before the day in question, if necessary. Professors are usually willing to help you out.
This probably won’t be an issue, since kosher food is plentiful and readily available. If Hillel’s The Shack, the student stores and Curbside (which sells prepackaged kosher food) are closed, Trader Joe’s, Ralphs, Coffee Bean and Target aren’t far. Ralphs even carries chalav Yisrael and parve chocolate, so chocoholics need not go without. You can also contact Chabad, JLIC or JAM.
Places to daven (pray) minchah (the afternoon prayer)
Sometimes, especially with winter’s early sunset, you don’t have much of a break between classes, with no time to get to Hillel or another designated place to daven minchah. It’s great to have the confidence to simply find a uncrowded corner or hall and get to it, but for those who are more easily distracted, a busy area with plenty of passersby to gape at or crash into you is far from conducive to concentrated prayer. For those ten-minute or half-hour breaks between classes, some of my favorites, from North Campus to South, are
- The covert smokers’ alley behind the snack machines on the northwest side of Humanities (absent of smokers, of course). While the alley is overlooked by Humanities office windows, the blinds are usually closed. And if they’re not, most Humanities professors have better things to do with their time than watch you.
- The lobby of the UCLA Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics, especially toward the back southeast corner. There are usually people walking around or studying, but it’s quiet, comfortable, and no one pays attention to you.
- Moore 100. Yes, it’s a large auditorium, but if you get there early or late enough during the day, especially during the summer, it might be empty. Make sure to enter from the inside of the hall; the outside door is usually locked.
- The downward staircase and anteroom at the far southwest corner of Franz. The staircase is typically deserted and leads to a small anteroom on the A floor, which no one seems to traverse except for me.
- The UCLA Meteorite Gallery toward the northeast end of Geology. The lights are dimmed and people do sometimes come in and look around, but it’s very quiet. Plus, meteorites are more interesting to look at than someone having a private moment. (When you’re done, make sure to look around. “Meteorwrongs” are sure to make your day. Or if you need some pre-prayer inspiration, a good method is contemplation of the vastness of the universe and awe-inspiring geological and atmospheric design of our planet via the shattered extraterrestrial rocks.)
- The Semel Institute Auditorium on the C floor of Semel. It’s to your immediate left when entering from the side entrance on Semel’s northwest corner. Like the Moore auditorium, there may be classes inside, but it’s often empty. The lighting is dim, so you may need to stand near the entrance.
General resources and learning
You’re probably familiar with all of these great organizations (listed in alphabetical order), but if you’re new to UCLA or newly interested, check them out. They’re led by extraordinarily warm, welcoming and non-judgmental people who always make time for Bruins with questions, cares, or simply a desire to learn more about Judaism. They have libraries stocked with awesome sefarim and Jewish books in English and, if you’re a commuter who needs to stay over for a Shabbat, they’ll suggest places to stay. Plus, they also have cute and intelligent kids.
- Chabad of UCLA: Chabad’s social, religious and humanitarian institutions have global impact, and at UCLA, Chabad has provided a “home away from home” for Jewish Bruins since the ’60s. Rabbi Dovid and Elisa Gurevitch provide Shabbat meals, mezuzot, learning sessions, activities, and an annual retreat. (Facebook)
- Hillel at UCLA: Part of the international, nondenominational Hillel movement for Jewish life on secular college campuses, Hillel at UCLA is not Orthodox, but it does host JLIC and other groups with significant Orthodox membership, such as Transfer Undergraduate Students at Hillel (TUSH) and Persian Community at Hillel (PCH). Hillel maintains an RCC-supervised kosher kitchen and Coffee Bean and provides weekly Shabbat meals and regular events. (Facebook)
- Jewish Action Movement (JAM) at UCLA: The UCLA branch, located on Frat Row, is part of a locally-founded organization for Jewish outreach and revitalization. Elana Shushan and her family host a learning program and regular events as well as weekly challah baking and Shabbat meals. (Facebook)
- Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at UCLA: The UCLA arm of the Orthodox Union’s acclaimed college campus program, which was founded to directly address the needs of Orthodox students, is located in the Hillel building with convenient proximity to the Coffee Bean. Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan host regular learning groups, Lunch and Learn events, private learning sessions, and an annual retreat. (Facebook)
- UCLA Young Research Library: OK, this isn’t exactly an organization and it doesn’t have any Jewish events or Shabbat dinners, but it does have an amazing and envy-inspiring collection of Jewish books. The BM collection is on the third floor, towards the back on the south side, and contains Maimonides, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov’s Book of Our Heritage series, and everything in between. Powell Library also has a good selection, mainly pertaining to Jewish history and books such as Gerald Schroeder’s seminal Genesis and the Big Bang.
While I can’t preemptively provide answers to odd questions (“You’re an Orthodox Jew? So, what’s a Reform Jew? Actually, what’s a Jew?”), forewarned is forearmed, and it’s always easier to be prepared, if only for peace of mind. My own UCLA experience would have been far more difficult without the mentors, friends and other fellow Jews who gave me advice and saw me through school, and I hope everyone can find the same.
Hatzlachah and berachah to all new and continuing Bruins, and mazal tov to the Class of 5776-2016! נלך מחיל אל חיל.