Brandeis University Admissions
Discovering an Inclusive Jewish Community
Aviva W. ’23
“Don't just settle for what you think you're going to like. Always try new things. Always be open to new experiences.”
During her first semester at Brandeis, Aviva W. ’23 didn't have much time to reflect. She was too busy becoming immersed in campus life.
"The first semester on campus goes by very quickly, and I didn't really have a second to think about if I had made the right decision by coming here," she recalled.
It was during winter break, when she headed home to Philadelphia, that she looked back on all she had done in the past few months and knew she had made the right choice.
"I'd had an amazing few months. I had a great group of friends already and I was counting down the days to come back to Brandeis for a second semester to see them," she says. “We were talking about Spring Fest, and Purim and other Jewish holidays coming up. And I was excited for the frisbee season.”
The Anthropology and Near Eastern and Judaic studies double major and Business minor is a member of Banshee – the Brandeis women’s Ultimate Frisbee team – has served on the Brandeis Hillel board, the board of Shira Chadasha, and is an Undergraduate Departmental Representative (UDR) for the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department. She will join Deloitte as a business technology solutions analyst after graduating in May.
What makes the Brandeis Jewish community special?
Growing up as a Conservative Jew with some Orthodox and Reform experiences as well, I came into college with an open mind. I could get involved in the Conservative community, I could get involved in other communities, or I didn't have to get involved in Jewish life at all. What's been so special is I have never felt like I had to confine myself to a specific type of Judaism.
At Brandeis, it's easy to float between the different varieties of Judaism. For example, if I wanted to, I could go to a Sephardic service on Shabbat instead of the Ashkenazi-style Orthodox service that I typically go to. I've had many conversations with new students who come to Brandeis confused. Maybe they don't know exactly what they want to do, or what they want to be, or they aren't sure how to join a particular community on campus.
I always say to them: You don't have to be part of just one community. You could decide one week to go to Conservative services and then go to Chabad for dinner, and then the next morning, you could go to the Orthodox services, and then you could go to Reform Havdalah at night. I always feel included by the students and by the staff members and at the various events. I don't think you will find that in many other places.
Is there a professor that has had a particularly profound impact on you?
Professor Elizabeth Ferry in the anthropology department. I've had her for three classes: Conducting Ethnographic Fieldwork; Economies and Culture; and Power and Violence: The Anthropology of Political Systems.
After my first year, once COVID began, I reached out to her to ask if she could help me find an internship, or a job, or some other way to gain experience in a time when all other activities were canceled. She connected me with Alma Gottlieb, a professor at Brown University, and I got the opportunity to help her with research into the immigration of Cape Verdean Jews to the New England area.
Since then, Professor Ferry has acted as a faculty mentor to me and is now my senior thesis advisor. I have really enjoyed taking her classes and the way she teaches.
What is your thesis about?
I'm focusing on the various Sephardic Jewish communities in New England. Many of the first Jewish immigrants to America came to the New England area and were of Sephardic origin, yet today, there isn't really such a presence of Sephardic Jews in the area. I'm looking at why this is, trying to figure out where those Sephardic Jews went, and why the population of Sephardic Jews in other large American cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Miami grew in comparison to states in the New England region.
What is Shabbat dinner at Brandeis like?
I usually go to Hillel for Shabbat dinner. Occasionally, now that I'm a senior and live in Ridgewood with my own kitchen, we host Shabbat dinner.
But when I go to Hillel dinners, I really enjoy them. They attract people from all different communities. Once Shabbat services finish, we all sort of head en masse to the Sherman Function Hall, which is where the Hillel dinner happens. It's really lovely. I often sit with my friends, but I also make an effort, especially while I was on the Hillel board, to try to sit with new people, or to get up and circulate. It's that kind of culture -- everyone stands up after they've finished eating and walks over to different tables to say hi to friends and meet new people.
Along with familiar faces, people bring friends who are not Jewish, or who are Jewish but have never been before, or friends visiting from out of town. It creates this wonderful space where you can meet new people. Shabbat has become a time for me where I turn off my phone, try to not to do any work, and simply connect with my friends and with the larger community.
What is the one piece of advice you would give an incoming student?
I would say this in talking about the Jewish community, but also about the university community as a whole: You are never confined to staying in one box.
If I had come in thinking, I'm going to be an anthropology major and a Conservative Jew, and that's all I want to do, I would not have allowed myself to expand in the way that the Brandeis culture allows. I'm really glad that I came in with an open mind.
Don't just settle for what you think you're going to like. Always try new things. Always be open to new experiences.