CLINTON, N.Y.—Visiting Hamilton College, my alma mater, after 40-plus years, it was hard not to slip back into the mindset of a 17-year-old public-school graduate eager to escape urban Queens, N.Y., for a bucolic existence at a small liberal arts college in rural upstate New York.

Having heard that Jewish life at Hamilton had recently experienced an upsurge, including the opening of Chabad in the idyllic town of Clinton, N.Y., I was eager to witness this transformation firsthand. Upon my recent return, I found Clinton to be as charming and sedate as ever. Stately 19th-century homes still surround a village green, flanked by imposing Protestant churches at either end. Up the hill from town, at Hamilton, students still walk beside manicured lawns among well-maintained brick and stone edifices.

I entered college in the 1970s, clad like most everyone else in LL Bean work boots and denim. Although my wardrobe mirrored that of my more privileged classmates—elite prep-school graduates—it didn’t prevent some of them from referring to me as “that Jewish girl from Queens.” There was, in fact, another Jewish girl from my public high school, who looked nothing like me, yet people often mixed us up, just as they might confuse two Asians who looked dissimilar yet in their mind were “other.”


My place in the social pecking order was firmly established at mealtimes, when my Queens schoolmate and I, working our way to pay the steep tuition, donned hairnets and unflattering white uniforms, and stood in the hot cafeteria scraping leftovers off trays tossed at us by our fellow students.

By the end of my first semester, my uneasiness in the Hamilton environment had blossomed into a full-blown case of feeling like “the klutz from Flushing.” As I sipped eggnog at campus-sponsored Christmas parties, I was sure my horns were protruding prominently from my hairnet.

The author in her dorm room, 1972
The author in her dorm room, 1972

Clearly, my plans to blend into the gentrified milieu on campus were failing. Despite the fact that I knew little about my heritage, I may as well have had “NEW YORK JEW” emblazoned upon my forehead. Determined to chip away at my ignorance, I embarked on a self-study project of all things Jewish.

This was no easy feat, since Jewish life on campus in the early 1970s was virtually non-existent. There were no Jewish student organizations, such as Chabad on Campus or Hillel.

In my era, Hamilton was a men’s college, and I was enrolled at Kirkland, its coordinate women’s college. (In 1978, Kirkland merged with Hamilton, which became co-ed.) Fortunately for me, Kirkland encouraged independent study. I was free to explore Judaism by visiting different communities, studying at Machon Chana Women’s Institute in Brooklyn, and ultimately, writing a senior thesis on the woman’s role according to Chabad philosophy. By the time I graduated, I had already begun to lead a Torah-observant life.

Jewish students at Hamilton today—who still comprise about 10 percent of the student body—have many more options to celebrate and enrich their Jewishness. Hillel has had a presence on campus since the mid-1980s as a small, student-run organization. For the last decade, Anat Guez, a warm Israeli who teaches Hebrew at Hamilton and serves as the college’s Jewish chaplain, has been Hillel’s dedicated club advisor. Guez is especially proud of the close-knit student group’s emphasis on tikkun olam, or “repairing the world” through social justice activities.

The author on a recent visit to Chabad of Clinton, a few blocks from Hamilton College
The author on a recent visit to Chabad of Clinton, a few blocks from Hamilton College

Four years ago, Chabad burst onto the Hamilton scene with the arrival of Rabbi Didy and Devorah Waks, and their children, supercharging Jewish life on The Hill and offering “something for everyone”—minyanim, matzah balls, mezuzot for dorm rooms, study sessions, challah bakes, Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations, all energetically dished out by Didy and Devorah.

Ruthie Schmidt from Philadelphia (Hamilton ‘20) came to college after years of Hebrew day-school education, thinking she had had “enough exposure to Jewish life.” When she got to campus, she realized that she missed the Jewish community and culture. “Hamilton’s Chabad reaffirmed my appreciation for the Jewish community,” she told “Being away from home for Passover is especially hard, but the care and support Devorah and Didy showed, creating the family we have with Hamilton Chabad, made it much easier.”

Jeff McArn, Hamilton’s chaplain, a Presbyterian minister, appreciates the added dimension that Chabad offers students, especially for off-campus gatherings.

It’s impossible to know how my life would have evolved if Hamilton/Kirkland had offered a richer Jewish life when I was a student. The “un-Jewishness” of Hamilton served as a springboard to deeper commitment for other Jewish alumni, too.

A Stepping Stone to Stronger Jewish Identity

Adam Eilenberg of Riverdale, N.Y., who opened a Manhattan law firm after completing law school at Harvard University, entered Hamilton in the mid-1970s as a “skinny Jewish kid from Queens.” While he didn’t experience overt hostility at Hamilton, he noticed “a sort of genteel anti-Semitism. Being Jewish at Hamilton in the 70s was just ... [pause] awkward.” His response was to hole up in the library and hit the books.

Hamilton grad Adam Eilenberg visits with Rabbi Waks
Hamilton grad Adam Eilenberg visits with Rabbi Waks

Ultimately, he strengthened his commitment to Judaism while at Hamilton, influenced in no small part by a devout Irish Catholic roommate, who inspired Eilenberg to explore his Jewish heritage. Years later, when he met his wife, they decided to lead an Orthodox life.

When Eilenberg learned that the Wakses were moving to Clinton from a friend in Palm Beach, Fla., where they had previously lived, he was flabbergasted. He has since visited them for Shabbat several times, and he believes that Chabad offers Hamilton a positive recruiting tool for Jewish students. “When Jewish parents know there is a caring family who will run to the dorm with chicken soup when their child is sick, it gives them a comfort level about sending their child there,” he said.

Both Ross Zelman, ‘91 of White Plains, N.Y., and Devorah Rose Kigel, ‘93 of Passaic, N.J., said they did not experience overt anti-Semitism at Hamilton, although each had the experience of being the first Jewish person some of their classmates had ever met. Hillel activities in their day typically attracted fewer than 10 students.

Kigel, a dating and marriage coach and inspirational speaker, said although she was an atheist when she started at Hamilton, her Jewish identity did begin to take shape there. She recalls helping plan a “speakout” on the steps of the college library, with segments scheduled on racism, sexism and the like.

Jared Mandelbaum (far right) with Abby Tulchinsky, and Rabbi Didy and Devorah Waks
Jared Mandelbaum (far right) with Abby Tulchinsky, and Rabbi Didy and Devorah Waks

When she pointed out that anti-Semitism was not being addressed, no one volunteered, so she stepped up. After her speech, while some Jewish classmates feared her comments might inflame anti-Semitism, others thanked her, saying that her words gave them the courage to “come out” as Jews at Hamilton. After earning her master’s degree in French and writing a thesis about French anti-Semitism, Kigel met Orthodox Jews for the first time while working at the Anti-Defamation League, which sparked her journey to a Torah-observant life.

Zelman is filled with admiration for Chabad emissaries like the Wakses, calling them “homesteaders,” and is proud to count himself among their growing cadre of alumni supporters.

Mark Segal, ‘09, a shomer Shabbat businessman also from Passaic, did not consider himself religious while he was at Hamilton, even though he put on tefillin in his dorm room every day, a practice carried over from his bar mitzvah at Chabad in Buffalo, N.Y. Once, upon encountering him wrapping tefillin, his tennis teammate asked him why he was wrapping tennis grip tape around his arm! He recalls with appreciation the Passover seders and monthly Friday-night dinners hosted by Hillel advisor Guez and is happy that Chabad now serves Hamilton as well.

Ruthi Schmidt (far right) and Abby Tulchinsky prepare challah with Mendel and Yetta Waks.
Ruthi Schmidt (far right) and Abby Tulchinsky prepare challah with Mendel and Yetta Waks.

Creating ‘Hamily’

On my recent visit to Clinton, I no longer felt the need to try to blend in. I’m an older version of “that Jewish girl from Queens,” and—it’s OK! As I walked through town with my white-bearded, kippah-clad husband, on our way to Shabbat services at Chabad of Clinton, my identity as a Jewish woman was unmistakable. After services in a recently renovated garage in back of the Wakses’s house, we enjoyed a hearty kiddush lunch in their cozy dining room together with students, faculty, alumni and community members, including the director of the local Jewish Federation/JCC. The atmosphere was warm and “heimish.” Devorah and Didy Waks have created what they call “Jewish Hamily”—a welcoming family environment for Hamilton students.

“Before I started going to Chabad, I struggled to retain my Jewish identity,” said Dean Rosenberg, who just graduated. “At such a small school, it’s hard to find Jewish students and faculty. It’s been an absolute blessing having Devorah and Didy in our Hamilton community. Chabad has given me so many opportunities to embrace my Judaism and meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

“Hamilton’s Jewish community is stronger than I ever thought it could be,” said Jared Mandelbaum, another recent graduate.

For those of us who never dreamed that “Hamilton” and “Jewish community” would ever co-exist in one sentence, Mandelbaum’s words are a welcome understatement.

Chanukah celebration at Hamilton College, co-hosted by Chabad and Hillel student groups
Chanukah celebration at Hamilton College, co-hosted by Chabad and Hillel student groups