Strong spiritual ties draw students of Jewish faith to GU

As a Catholic institution that enrolls primarily students of Christian faiths — 72.6 percent, according to official GU Census data — not everyone is aware of the history of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in this region. Just as many are not aware of the rich history of Jewish leaders in Spokane.

As of Fall 2016, 31 GU students identified themselves as Jewish — 0.6 percent of undergraduates. That is five more than Fall 2015.

Sophomore Samantha Karp, the religious coordinator for the Jewish Bulldogs, said she wasn’t aware of the history of anti-Semitism in the region. But for Zina Zimmerman, a Spokane native and Jewish Bulldogs president, this has been an unfortunate reality.

Growing up, Zimmerman described her excitement dressing up to go to synagogue for Sunday school. She said she wore her fanciest dresses and always had her mom do her hair.

“I didn’t even think anything was different,” she said. “I just assumed that everyone went to Sunday school.”

Her first experience with anti-Semitic violence was a bomb scare at Sunday school when she was in elementary school in the early 2000s, she said.

A barrel of tar was left in the back corner of the parking lot, she said. No one noticed until all the children had been dropped off.

“So temple went into a lockdown,” Zimmerman said.

Parents were called and the teachers kept the children distracted in an isolated room, she said.

“I was young, I wasn’t worried,” Zimmerman said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

In hindsight, it was shocking, she said.

“Who would purposefully leave a barrel of tar to threaten a bunch of kids?” she said.

This left a permanent mark on her mindset toward identifying herself as Jewish, she said.

“Once I started to realize what was going on I started not necessarily hiding, but the first thing that I would say about myself was not that I was Jewish,” she said.

For Karp, the police presence was surprising, she said. Coming from the small town of Colfax, California, this was outside the norm.

“When I went to temple up in the South Hill for the first time and I saw cops there, it was like, ‘What is happening? Is something going on?’ ” she said. “And then it was just so normal to everyone else.”

In California there was always hesitation to open up the synagogue to too much of the public, she said, but no incidents have occurred there in her lifetime.

Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein, a GU religious studies professor  and the Jewish Bulldogs adviser, said, Spokane is not necessarily normal for the rest of America, but is more comparable to Europ

She said there is more of a police presence in Scotland and Paris. It is also becoming more common in the U.S., especially in New York.

Karp and Zimmerman each said the idea of coming to a Catholic school wasn’t a drawback, and for Zimmerman it was even a positive.

“In one way it’s the same as it has been my whole life because I went to public school my whole life in a small town in California,” Karp said. “So, I was always the one Jewish kid there beside my siblings.”

Ultimately, her decision came down to the strength of the nursing program and the appeal of the campus, she said.

For Zimmerman, after a year at the University of Portland, also a Catholic school, she said she realized she needed to be closer to her Jewish community in Spokane. However, she knew she liked the idea of a religiously affiliated school.

She said relationships one builds in a school “that strives for academic and spiritual growth” are especially strong.

With such a small Jewish community, Spokane is very different for Jews from the East Coast.

Goldstein attended a Jewish day school, while Zimmerman and Karp attended public schools where religion wasn’t discussed at all.

Zimmerman said her only formal learning came from a few hours at Sunday school.

Where public school students learn basic math, English and science, Jewish day school students learn “basic Judaism,” she said.

Goldstein said she feels it is easier to be a lesbian in Spokane than a Jew.

“Not because I feel oppressed as being a Jew,” she said, “I just feel like there’s a lot of people that don’t really understand anything about what it means to be a Jew here.”

For GU students, Karp, Zimmerman and Goldstein all said education and awareness are very important.

“I don’t believe that anti-Semitism is going to go away,” Goldstein said, “but I would like them to feel like the people who would now be embarrassed to make anti-gay statements.”

Besides attending on-campus religious lectures, Goldstein said the new 2016-17 core will have a strong addition to the religious studies core.

With the new core, sophomores will study Christianity or Catholicism, but a comparative or world religion will now be required as a junior.

“On a Catholic campus like this, I feel like sometimes you might only know about Jews from what the New Testament says about Jews,” Goldstein said. “That’s not a good way to learn about Jews.”

This is because the intention was to teach about Jesus in a time where people didn’t believe in him, she said.

“I think learning about another religion not only strengthens your own religion, but it strengthens you as a person,” Zimmerman said.

Since most people only grow up familiar with the religion their family practices, this is important for widening horizons, Karp said said.

“Christianity and the Gospels are not things I grew up learning about so it’s new to me,” Karp said. “But, the majority of the campus I would say it’s not new to anyone else.”

Zimmerman mentioned the fear she had going to Mass for one of her courses, but the professor comforted her, so she grew from it.

She said she understands what it’s like to study a religion you are very familiar with.

“I was definitely going through the motions in Judaism until I started teaching it [at Sunday school],” she said.


The Jewish Bulldogs

When she came to GU seven years ago, Goldstein said there was no formal Jewish student group.

It has been a priority for her to “tap into how to serve the spiritual needs of the Jewish students” since, she said. She is still on that “journey” of doing so.

The students have taken initiative in building the club, she said. The club holds Jewish worship services once a month in Hemmingson.

This creates a place to celebrate holy days, festivals and holidays, which are both cultural and religious events. Many students may be ancestrally Jewish, but not have been raised religiously, she said.

Karp said she reached out to Goldstein right away as a freshman last year and she was directed to Zimmerman.

One of the first to join the club when it became official her freshman year, Zimmerman said she didn’t know there was a Jewish presence on campus.

One of the founding members taught Sunday school with her at TBS and had her join when she recognized her during a tabling session.

“When I found out there was, I mean that’s the point that secured it that Gonzaga was right for me,” she said.

She said her friends in Jewish Bulldogs are the closest friends she has on campus.

“We’re Jewish together at a Jesuit institution,” she said.

The club offers rides to Temple Beth Shalom for major holidays and many volunteered at the Kosher Dinner on Sunday.

Goldstein emphasized the importance of the Reflection Room, a nonsecular space of worship in Hemmingson, because there is no crucifix in the room.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but the crucifix has been a symbol of — although it’s been a symbol of life and promise for Christians — it has been a symbol of fear for Jews over the years,” she said.

It is reminiscent of forcible conversion and feelings of inadequacy in terms of faith, Goldstein said. 

“If were to hold services in a room that had a crucifix, I think it would be — no I don’t think — I know it would be awkward for a lot of Jewish students,” Zimmerman said.

Regarding current events and the targeting of Jewish communities, she said she reaches out to students affected, but tries not to discuss nonlocal events during club time so it doesn’t turn into a place of bad news sharing.

“I want to keep Jewish Bulldogs a place of haven, a place where Jewish students can go to forget everything else and just be around other Jews for the couple hours that we’re together,” she said.


Jared Brown is the head news editor. Follow him on Twitter: 


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