By Cindy Mindell
NEW BRITAIN – It’s been five years since Norton Mezvinsky retired from the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) history department. Well known as a self-described “Jewish anti-Zionist,” the controversial professor spent 42 years at CCSU, introducing anti-Israel speakers to campus while heading the Middle East Lecture Series and laying the foundation for fellow faculty members with anti-Israel viewpoints.
So it’s no wonder that, despite the presence of Hillel at CCSU since the ‘80s, the school does not have a particular appeal for college-bound Jewish teens.
The newly appointed Hillel coordinator hopes to change this impression and attract more Jewish students to campus.
No’a Roche, 24, grew up in a secular Jewish home on the Shoreline and came to New Britain to earn a degree in economics at CCSU. She still lives downtown in the Artists’ Cooperative and is studying in two post-graduate programs: the Center of Excellence in Planning, in Bucharest, Romania, and at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. She visits both periodically (in fact, the Ledger interviewed Roche while she was in Bucharest).
Roche succeeds Pam Majidy, who served as Hillel program coordinator, a position funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, from 2012 until earlier this year. Like Majidy, Roche works with Sharon Braverman, assistant to the dean of the CCSU School of Business and the longtime campus advisor to Hillel. Roche is also Jewish student life coordinator for Hillel, a position made possible by a grant from the West Hartford-based Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), which offers Roche ongoing support and training opportunities.
Despite its reputation in recent years, Roche doesn’t see CCSU as a particularly anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist campus now.
“Of course there are challenges to Jewish life at Central – aren’t there everywhere? – but I don’t think that any of it is something that students can’t rise above,” she says. “I don’t think that there are a lot of people who want to be bigoted at CCSU, but there are a lot of people who don’t even know that they are. They are by no means a majority, but they do tend to be loud and confident.”
“Central is a really underrated school, and generally a superb community,” she adds. “You’ve got bad apples, of course, but they grow on every tree. I genuinely believe that CCSU has a deeply caring community, and at the end of the day, the majority of us just want to be there for one another and make sure everything’s all right. I’m not so sure about the rest of the day, though.”
But Roche has seen anti-religion bias on campus, both among and toward Jews.
“There are lots of experiences of micro-aggression on campus – those questions and assertions that we hear and aren’t sure we have the right to be upset about,” she explains. “People think they have the right to tell us what we should and shouldn’t care about, what is and isn’t important, what our Jewishness should and shouldn’t be. The biggest issue for Jewish students on campus is exploring, crafting, and defending their unique Jewish identities. Basically, I’m doing what I can to help students make their Jewish experience more meaningful while at Central.”
Roche sees Hillel as a place where students – Jews and non-Jews alike – can explore personal identity.
“One of the most difficult parts about being a young Jew, or young person outside of the mainstream in any sense, is that everybody seems to know a lot more about your identity than you do and won’t let you get a word in edgewise about it,” she says. “You don’t have to be a Zionist. You don’t have to keep the Sabbath. You don’t have to like gefilte fish. You just have to be curious about yourself and the world, and we’re here to help with those curiosities in a Jewish context.”
Hillel at CCSU is small and gradually growing. The first meeting of the year, a screening of the Israeli film Walk on Water drew two participants. Roche says that she has begun to see more people coming in week by week. A Chanukah event is in the works.
Hillel doesn’t have a dedicated building on the New Britain campus but rather holds meetings and events at Newman House, home to the CCSU Catholic Campus Ministry. Roche hopes to help find funding for a dedicated Hillel campus facility.
“It’s really great that our Catholic friends at the Newman House are willing to share their space with us, but there is something special and unique about the Jewish home,” she says. “It’s the center of the faith for a reason and it would provide incredible comfort to students who have experimented with being shomer Shabbat while at Central – there have been a few [including Roche] – and really is necessary for getting into the nooks and crannies of what Jewishness can be.”
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