After every Friday night Shabbat service at the Bayit, dinner is served. And, as before any dinner, the Bayit assistants must toil away in the kitchen. On this past Friday, Isabella Johnson ’16, a Bayit assistant, was working on a dessert. She turned down the music to speak. “It’s like an upside down, caramelized apple pie,” she said. “I jokingly call myself a pastry chef.” This dinner was themed around Junior Year Abroad (JYA). Shepard’s pie matches the student who jaunted to England, and tarté for France. The meals are vegetarian and kosher.
Students lead the Shabbat services. Outside the kitchen, the first floor includes an inviting living room with nearby Jewish-themed pamphlets and literature. By the staircase, Rabbi Rena Blumenthal’s office door offers a master calendar where students may fill in when they wish to lead a service. Blumenthal is both the Assistant Director of Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) and Advisor to Jewish Students. Her students simply call her Rena.
The Bayit, Blumenthal explained, became a Jewish campus life hub around 1997. Previously, the house was split into two apartments for students with spouses. In the mid-1990s, extensive renovation converted the house into the home that it is today. As time went on, the Bayit’s role in Vassar Jewish life only expanded. Services became better attended and the space used more frequently for students to simply hang out, study, bake or watch films. All the usual trappings of college life are there: plenty of couches, a TV and a computer room with a printer.
Though the Bayit is open to all, it is particularly affiliated with Challah for Hunger and the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU). Challah for Hunger cooks in the kitchen weekly and donates the proceeds to charity, while the VJU uses the Bayit for Shabbat services and dinner. “We all coexist very peacefully, and often are able to help each other. [Blumenthal] is very generous with letting Challah use the space, and often we benefit from being able to have [her] as a resource and advocate,” wrote President of Challah for Hunger Lauren Stamm ’14 in an emailed statement. “Often VJU members and Challah for Hunger bakers overlap.”
With Johnson in the kitchen, Bayit Intern Elena Fruchtman ’14 swung by the Bayit. As intern, Fruchtman’s job involves aiming to increase the number of interfaith programming sponsored by the Bayit and other organizations. She found the Bayit during her sophomore year after bringing her fellowees to the Freshman Shabbat dinner. “I just loved that everyone was sitting around singing. We all knew the same songs. We all knew the same words. It didn’t really matter what anything meant because we all had this connection to the music, and for me that was super spiritual.” She joined the Bayit as an assistant soon after.
Naomi Dann ’14, the President of the Vassar Jewish Union, discovered the Bayit during Freshmen Shabbat dinner as well. “I went my freshman year and felt really alienated. None of the persons were familiar to me,” Dann said. “[I] really didn’t think that it was a space I felt comfortable in throughout the service.” But, during the post-service dinner, Dann spoke with a sophomore on the VJU board. He convinced her to run for a board position, and she’s been there since.
VJU Vice President Samantha Basch ’16 also discovered the Bayit and the VJU in her freshman year. “I was still practicing Judaism at home, but I felt like I was just going through the motions,” Basch said. “Whereas when I came here, I felt like everything I was doing had meaning again.” The dinner itself was refreshing. “I was surprised that we were sitting in a circle, which was a big deal for me because the dynamic that that creates is very different from having a rabbi up high on a pulpit and then everyone else listening to them,” Basch explained. “There wasn’t that hierarchical feeling and that surprised me.”
Indeed, Blumenthal encourages her students to explore and interrogate the various issues tied to Jewish life. “It is a place for Jewish education and communal celebrations; a safe space for Jewish students to explore the complexities of Jewish identity; a place to integrate what students are learning in the classroom with lived cultural and religious experience; and a place where both Jews and non-Jews can learn about Jewish history, religion and culture,” Blumenthal wrote. “Jewish identity formation can be difficult to navigate. I would like to think that the Bayit is one forum among many on the Vassar campus for doing this kind of personal and communal exploration.”
The Bayit is open to Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, though misconceptions may make it seem otherwise. “Any Vassar student can have access to the Bayit as long as they go through 10-minute training with me beforehand,” Blumenthal explained. “The purpose of the training is to make sure that students keep the Bayit safe, clean and kosher.” Indeed, Johnson is an example of a non-Jewish member of the Bayit community. “I came just to see how it was because I was in period where I was exploring my faith and my religion. So then I came to freshmen shabbat, and I thought it was a really great place,” Johnson said. “The community was really welcoming, everyone was really friendly and the food was really good.”
Dinner is still not done yet. Theo Pravitz-Rosen ’14, the other Bayit Assistant, arrived and quickly moves to the kitchen. Soon enough, he was peeling away at the apples as Fruchtman chopped up the finished ones into wedges for the dessert dish. Pravitz-Rosen spoke upon the Bayit, a home he has had since his freshman year. “Coming here on Friday brought a structure for my week,” he observed. “[The Bayit is] a place to put a slightly different perspective on your Vassar experience than meeting in classes and engaging others in your head all the time.” It’s just another week at the Bayit, and everyone’s invited.