How my Muslim roommate helped me keep Shabbat

Shira Tall
August 21, 2020

Like so many children who are the 13-year product of Jewish Day School, when I was looking at colleges I wanted to move away from what felt like small confines and branch out to a larger and more diverse community. I wanted a large school with a sizable Jewish population and a big sports atmosphere. The summer before going into college, I decided I wanted a random roommate, filled out the survey from our Residential Life, and remained cautiously optimistic.

My family, friends, and I would often joke about Day School graduates saying either we become more observant, less observant, or move to Israel. I was no exception to this rule. I grew up attending an egalitarian, Conservative synagogue, but knew that when I was older I wanted to keep Shabbat and be within walking distance of a synagogue. College allowed for me to be “independently dependent” and a way to create my own definition of Shabbat.

When I received the name of my roommate, I was excited and slightly nervous. Her name didn’t sound Jewish, and she didn’t have a huge social media presence so it was hard to find information about her before meeting. We decided to FaceTime one night, and my parents suggested mentioning I was interested in going to Hillel and Chabad. While the exact details of the conversation are hazy in my mind, I do know that she had no reaction when I mentioned it. Flash forward to move-in-day in August, we arrived around the same time and both unpacked our belongings. I wanted to put up a mezuzah, but was too uncomfortable to ask and selfishly didn’t want to allow her the space to tell me no. I waited until she went to the bathroom to hang it up and then jumped back on my bed as if I had been there all along. When she came back and opened the door, she replied, “That’s a Jewish thing, right? We used to have one on my house when we moved in.” Her response was as nonchalant as if saying “The sky is blue.” This immediately made me feel at ease and comfortable.

While I didn’t know for sure my roommate was Muslim (I assumed but didn’t ask), she told me two weeks into school that she was going home for Eid al-Adha. Thus began our talks about religion; rules of halal and kashrut, praying, headcoverings, and general random questions when we were curious about each other’s religion. During this time, I was discussing my practice with a Jewish friend who also decided that she wanted to become shomer shabbat as well. We decided to commit to it together and that way we could rely on one another for support. While I was excited, I was nervous to tell my roommate I could no longer turn on or off a light, I couldn’t swipe my card to even get into my residence hall, and I couldn’t use my phone or computer, amongst other practices. I didn’t know how I was going to be received now having to explain what appears on the surface level to be odd customs.

To say that my roommate was understanding would be an understatement. She not only was respectful but helped support me too. Turning lights on before she left to go home for the weekend, wishing me a “happy Shabbad”, playing board games, and even playfully chiding me if I was late to services or considered skipping.

Being Jewish on campus can be a scary thing. You never know how people will react and given the increase in antisemitism, it’s hard to believe the world is anything but hostile towards Jews. To have someone embrace you for your entire identity truly is a beautiful thing and I was blessed to have lived with her my entire undergraduate career. While I know this isn’t the reality for everyone, I hope people are able to have the same experience I did and put differences aside.

Read More.