On Feb. 27, 1949, Old Kenyon burned down, killing nine students, four of whom were Jewish. The first image in the slideshow of the “Finding Jewish at Kenyon” presentation last Thursday, Nov 11, showed the building in flames.
“I’m not here to suggest in anyway that this was an act of anti-Semitism or anything like that,” Nate Gordon ’20 said. “However, this photo is indicative of Jews’ social relations or social status on campus in the 40s and 50s.”
Gordon pointed out that the hardest part of Old Kenyon to escape from was the middle—as staircases are located on the wings—and the middle of Old Kenyon housed the “Middle Kenyon Association,” an alternative to Greek life that many Jewish students opted to join, not because they were excluded from fraternities but because they did not feel invited.
“This brings us to our first research finding: isolated, not oppressed,” Gordon said.
Gordon and Sigal Felber ’21 stood before a nearly packed Community Foundation Theater. Sitting before them was a crowd of over 50 that was mostly students but also included professors, administrators, staff, alumni and Gambier community members. The title slide of their presentation featured not so much of a presentation title as a statement of incredulity: “Jews? At Kenyon.” After Gordon and Felber carried the room through their captivating corpus of research, the final slide declared, more definitively, “Jews. At Kenyon.”
In “Finding Jewish at Kenyon,” Gordon and Felber presented research spanning seven decades. Through interviews with alumni, key figures and current students, their research told the story of Jewish student life at Kenyon from the “Middle Kenyon Association” in the center of Old Kenyon, to worshipping in the basement of the Church of the Holy Spirit, all the way to the crowded Shabbat dinners at today’s Rothenberg Hillel House.
Gordon and Felber have been working on the project since February 2018. Over the summers and semesters that have followed, they have interviewed alumni and key figures in Jewish spiritual life on campus spanning seven decades. Now that they have completed the project, they are hoping to make their interviews and written work accessible to the broader public.
Their work will be shared with the Kenyon archives, the Knox County Jewish Cemetery Society and the Jewish Historical Society of Columbus.
They emphasized that a key finding in their research was the importance of people and places: leaders and physical spaces that served as linchpins in the creation of a Jewish spiritual community on campus.
“Once you have someone or something that seems like it’s going to be there for a while, that’s definitely a huge critical element of building a community,” Felber said.
Gordon agreed, citing the importance of figures within and outside of the Jewish community, including Don Rogan, a former Kenyon professor and Episcopal chaplain.
“The outreach by certain individuals outside of the minority group is critical for making minority students feel like they have a place on this campus,” Gordon said.
Both Gordon and Felber said that the presence of strong leaders, committed allies and a physical space are common to any group’s search for their own space on a small liberal arts college campus.
They also emphasized that the hard work of Jewish activists, culminating in such a vibrant campus life today, should not be taken for granted.
“A lot of the people that we interviewed had an activist bent with their work,” Felber said. “They felt a sense of obligation to bring the Jewish community to life here. It’s hard work for sure.”
One thing Felber emphasized was that the quality of research she and Gordon produced could be attributed to their passion for the project. “It wasn’t anything we were told to do,” she said. “We volunteered ourselves.”
In this vein, Gordon ended the presentation by making a plea to the crowd: “I’m mostly saying this because I don’t know when else I’ll have an audience that cares about the Jewish community or as many people listening to me talk about it,” Gordon said. “I’d like to suggest that there’s tremendous potential for more academic opportunities to study Judaism and Hebrew at Kenyon.”
In addition to advocating for Judaic studies, Gordon and Felber felt that there was more work to do in terms of documenting history. While there is a wide breadth to their project, they said the Q&A session revealed possible future avenues for research by digging into more particular questions that they were unable to answer. They emphasized that anyone who hopes to continue or add to the project should reach out to them.
“Anyone if you’re out there and you have some interest in this topic, step forward. I think that would make it grow in the best way it could,” Felber said.