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In residence, but far from the Jewish bubble

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For many students, university is the first time that they have a true sense of independence. But for some, this freedom is a culture shock, especially for Jewish students who grow up in a predominantly Jewish environment and now find themselves living in university residence.

For these students, there are so few Jews around, they are likely to find that they are the first Jews their residence mates have ever met.

When Jared Daitsh, a Herzlia class of 2022 alumnus left his school, he knew that going into residence at Stellenbosch would be a good way to leave the “bubble” that he found himself in.

“I’ve had a computer in my house for as long as I can remember, so when I met a guy in my residence who said he had never seen a computer before coming to university and that’s why he was studying computer science, it hit me how far from home I was,” Daitsh told the SA Jewish Report.

“I felt a sense of culture shock as I realised how privileged I was. At Herzlia, we were protected from the poverty and realities that many people in South Africa face.

“At first, I tried to keep the fact that I was Jewish under wraps, but the more I spoke to people, the more I started making it pretty clear that I was Jewish. There was no backlash, but probably more fascination as I was the first Jewish person they had met,” said Daitsh.

He described an incident which occurred while brushing his teeth, when he was approached and asked about his stance on Israel, but that conversation never occurred again. “Since the start of the war, there was a bit of hostility and in my residence, it started to feel like they were taking a side – the side of the pro-Palestinian movement – so I went to the head of my residence and said that this was what was happening and it was making me uncomfortable. My residence then released a statement saying that it was taking a neutral stance, which I appreciate,” said Daitsh.

Although Danya Hanan didn’t attend a Jewish school for most of her high school career, opting to go to Kingsmead College where she was one of the only practising Jewish students, she still felt a big shift in the way that she saw the world after spending some time at her residence at the University of Pretoria last year.

“Even though I was already exposed to the diversity of South Africa at Kingsmead, I was more exposed to this diversity at university. This was because there was more freedom, and it wasn’t confined only to the educational system,” said Hanan.

She was the only Jewish girl in her residence of about 640 students. “All of the people I told I was Jewish were interested in Judaism and wanted to know more about it. My roommates kept asking me to bring kitkas to residence because they loved it. It was nice to see that,” Hanan said.

“It was slightly weird at the beginning of the year with everything going on in Israel,” Hanan said. “There were protests in Hatfield, so I decided not to go to university those days as I wear a Star of David and a Hebrew necklace, so it’s quite evident that I’m Jewish. For the sake of safety, I stayed in residence those days. I was asked why I wasn’t going to class, and they all understood to an extent, but not fully.”

Hanan, who keeps kosher, had to bring her kosher food to her residence and keep it separate from the other food in the communal fridge. She bought an air fryer so that she didn’t have to use the oven that the other girls had cooked unkosher food in. “They didn’t understand what kosher was,” she says, “and I tried to explain it, but it’s tough to explain it to someone who maybe hasn’t heard much about Judaism and the laws of keeping kosher. The more I tried to explain it and told them to do some research, the more they got confused,” said Hanan.

“I knew going into residence that I would be a minority as there aren’t a lot of Jewish girls who stay in residence, but my mom told me about how it was a great way to meet people and so many different types of people that it drew me to that environment,” Hanan said.

“This is complicated for our kids,” said psychologist Judith Ancer. “The important thing for these kids is to go in aware that they are going from something familiar – like a bubble – to something completely different. You must go in with an attitude of open-mindedness and curiosity to tolerate and be open to learn about people and their unique experiences and not make assumptions,” she said.

“The Jewish community is anxious currently, and young people can be defensive. This isn’t going to stand anybody in good stead,” Ancer said. “You’re going to be a minority, you’re going to meet a lot of people with different views, and recognise that everyone has a right to have these views. You’re going to be confronted with these views, and must know how to pick your battles. A negative opinion on Israel isn’t an attack on you,” she said.

Ancer said that if you go into university acknowledging these facts, you won’t be shocked when confronted with these situations, and said students should try to get involved in student life so that this difference diminishes throughout the academic year.

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