Dozens of Jewish students at Texas Christian University will be cheering for their team on New Year’s Day as they take on Jewish football star Gabe Carimi and the University of Wisconsin
The Jews of Texas Christian University
By EDMON J. RODMAN
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Texas Christian University may seem out of place at this season’s Rose Bowl — but not as much as a few of its fans.
The notion of Jewish students at Texas Christian may seem like a mismatch, but don’t tell that to the several dozen Jewish students at TCU who will be cheering as loudly as anyone when the team takes the field in Pasadena, Calif., on New Year’s Day. Who says the Horned Frog, TCU’s mascot, can’t wear a kippa?
The team’s dominant, undefeated season and top-flight performances in recent years have proved that it belongs among the NCAA’s elite teams, playing on the most storied stage in college football.
The school, located in Fort Worth, has about 60 Jewish students, out of more than 8,000 at the university, which is associated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainstream Protestant denomination.
To serve them, TCU has a thriving Hillel, reports the organization’s adviser, Arnold Barkman, an associate professor of accounting and transplanted New Yorker who has lived in Texas since 1974. Many students can be seen sporting the purple, white and blue Star of David Hillel T-shirts, and Jewish students, professors and staff can be found hanging out and enjoying a nosh at the bagel place across the street from the campus.
Barkman notes that the TCU Hillel sponsors a lecture series that has brought prominent Jewish writers and thinkers to campus, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, author Rabbi Harold Kushner and scholar Susannah Heschel.
The Hillel program, which does not hold regular Shabbat services, arranges home Shabbat dinners with area families and provides tickets for students interested in attending High Holiday services.
Not that the situation at TCU will be confused with the Jewish life of its Rose Bowl opponent,Â the University of Wisconsin. On that school’s Madison campus, there are an estimated 5,000 Jewish undergrads, a gleaming new multistory Hillel building, kosher meal plans, and even an Orthodox student organization, JEM, that also fills its dining hall on Fridays. The school’s football team even boasts a Jewish star lineman and NFL prospect, Gabe Carimi (see sidebar below).
So how does that tiny Jewish squad deep in the heart of Texas even field a team?
“We are scattered across the campus, but we show everyone there is a Jewish presence on campus,” said sophomore Kyle Orth, a music major and noted concert pianist who is serving as the TCU Hillel president.
Hillel’s (almost) monthly meetings on campus attract from five to 15 students to the new Hillel Conference Room in TCU’s Student Union and feature screenings of Israeli films and the construction and presentation of a yearly on-campus Holocaust exhibit.
“Going to a Christian college makes you aware of who you are as a Jew,” Orth said. It also “makes me aware of what I can bring to the world as a Jew.”
It is not a phenomenon limited to TCU. A number of Jewish students attend other schools across the country associated with Christian denominations, including Jewish “fighting Irish” at Notre Dame University in Indiana and Jews at the Jesuits’ Boston College.
At Boston College, about 2 percent of the school’s 9,000 students are Jewish, according to the director of Jewish life there, Elissa Klein. Tzvi Novick, the Jordan Kapson Chair in Jewish Studies at Notre Dame, serves as adviser to the Jewish Club there. Novick notes that Notre Dame has no Hillel and only a few Jewish students on campus.
Some of the students who attend Jewish on-campus groups at these Christian schools are simply curious. For example, according to Novick, at Notre Dame, non-Jewish students are active in the Jewish Club.
At TCU, Barkman says, students who are converting to Judaism attend Hillel meetings.
At Boston College, Klein has learned that “the millennial students want cultural exchanges.”
“One of our most active members is not Jewish,” Klein said. “We even get non-Jewish students who might miss their hometown Jewish neighborhoods and friends.”
Sounding like Orth at TCU, Klein says that attending a Christian campus “heightens the student’s ethnic identity. Jewish students feel like a real minority here.”
Klein says she fields calls all the time from parents asking, “Will my son or daughter be able to date someone Jewish?”
What brings Jewish students to a Christian campus?
“Students like Kyle [Orth] come to pursue a specific major,” Barkman answered. “Some just like to stay close to home. We had a student whose parents moved here from Israel, so it made sense to come here.”
Barkman says that in recent times, TCU’s administration has grown more sensitive to its Jewish and other non-Christian students.
“The school asked about food items served at campus luncheons which may by unacceptable to Jews and Muslims,” he said. “I suggested they alter their menu from pork and shellfish.”
Barkman also points to the school administration’s decision this year to stop an anti-Israel divestment group from meeting on campus. And TCU expects to have a new director of Jewish studies in the coming academic year. It’s also worth noting, he says, that the school has no chapel requirement.
“Only one class in religion is required,” he said. “And there are a variety of classes to fulfill it, including a class in contemporary Judaism.”
TCU is not a campus of “Bible thumpers,” Barkman adds.
“Everyone on the faulty knows I am Jewish,” he said. “I feel comfortable here. There is no bias on this campus.”
Of course, being Jewish at TCU still can garner some attention.
One such instance started with an announcement that TCU’s football team is going to switch to playing in the Big East Athletic Conference with Rutgers University.
Soon after the change was announced, Barkman received a call.
“Hi, are you Arnie Barkman?” the caller asked. “The Arnie Barkman who I met at Camp Tel Hai in Pennsylvania?”
“It was a man I met at camp when I was 14,” Barkman said. “He works at Rutgers and wanted to see if there was anything Jewish at TCU.”
* * *
Gabe Carimi: Star in shul and on the football field
By DEBORAH HIRSCH
PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — Gabe Carimi already knows that Yom Kippur won’t fall on a Sunday for at least the next 20 years.
The star left tackle at the University of Wisconsin looked up the dates in anticipation of being a potential first-round pick in this spring’s NFL draft. But first, Carimi will end his college career by leading the Badgers against the Texas Christian University’s Horned Frogs in the 97th Rose Bowl.
Carimi, co-captain of the Big Ten championship team, was recently named the conference Lineman of the Year and awarded the Outland Trophy, a national honor given to the best interior lineman. The civil and environmental engineering major has also been named Academic All-Big Ten four years in a row.
For Carimi, at 6 feet, 7 inches and 327 pounds, playing football and practicing Judaism both come naturally.
“It’s always just who I’ve been,” he told JTA.
Speaking by phone before an intensive series of Rose Bowl practices, Carimi recalled how his childhood baseball coach had sized him up and suggested giving football a try.
Of course, Carimi said, his mom always worried about him, but there wasn’t much danger of serious injury in peewee football. And even though sports practices dominated his schedule, he always reserved time to attend Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Madison.
“He grew up at temple,” said Larry Kohn, the congregation’s education director.
Kohn chuckled at the memory of blessing Carimi during his Bar Mitzva service, which he led in the rabbi’s absence. The teenager was already so tall, Kohn said, that he had to put his hands on Carimi’s shoulders instead of his head — even with the future football star bending down.
After becoming a Bar Mitzva, Carimi continued his religious studies, celebrating his Confirmation and working as an assistant to a fifth-grade Sunday school teacher. For Hanuka one year, he asked his parents for a shofar and joined the men who share the honor of blowing the ram’s horn on the High Holidays.
While football has become more time consuming lately, Carimi still joins his parents and older sister for Friday night services whenever he can.
“Our lives have been busy and Friday evening was the time to stop, take a deep breath, inhale, exhale, just kind of get back in touch with what’s important,” his dad, Sanford Carimi, said.
“It always felt like home there,” Gabe Carimi said. Plus, he added, after nine hours a day at Camp Randall Stadium during football season, there wasn’t time to get involved with the campus Hillel.
To Kohn, the fact that Carimi continues to prioritize Shabbat and take on a leadership role at his synagogue, on top of commitments to football and academics, speaks volumes about his “spiritual strength and devotion.”
“A lot of kids, when they hit college, sort of take a break and return after they have kids,” Kohn said. “He’s a model of a long-term commitment to a task and to a value.”
Carimi has also made a point of maintaining some observance of the High Holidays, even when football interferes. When Yom Kippur fell on a Saturday during his freshman year, he fasted until an hour before the night game.
This past September, the holiday coincided with an afternoon face-off against Arizona State University. Carimi wrestled with whether he should play at all, even going to his rabbi for advice.
“I’ve always fasted, even when I was young,” he explained. “It’s a moment of clarity to kind of take the focus off the whole world and everything you have to do — just focus on trying to make yourself a better person.”
Ultimately, he came up with his own compromise: Instead of fasting from sundown to sundown, he started the fast early enough to give himself a few hours to recover before the game.
“Religion is a part of me and I don’t want to just say I’m Jewish,” Carimi said. “I actually do make sacrifices that I know are hard choices.”
As long as coaches respect those decisions, Carimi said, he has no problem respecting the team’s longstanding religious traditions. The Badgers, for example, have a Catholic priest lead prayers before every game. So as not to seem “socially different,” Carimi said, he opts to sit together with the group and listen quietly.
Outside of football and Judaism, Carimi has developed a passion for construction through his engineering studies, his woodworking hobby and two internships. This spring, he’ll work with an adviser to complete a final capstone design project.
As much as he likes engineering, Carimi said, he’s happy to put it aside for a pro football career. After the Rose Bowl, he’ll get two weeks off before returning to the field to train for the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine.
More important than any football achievement, Sanford Carimi said, his son has proven to be a smart thinker with strong character and self-esteem. Even when he thinks about a huge honor like the Outland Trophy, he said, “that would mean nothing to me if he wasn’t a good kid.”
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