Jewish on (a Catholic) Campus: The JOC Ambassador Program’s Impact at Notre Dame

Blake Ziegler
July 27, 2022

When I chose the University of Notre Dame, I anticipated some adjustment for a Jew attending arguably the world’s most Catholic university. The Catholic identity at Notre Dame is unmistakable when there’s a crucifix in every classroom, chapels in each dormitory, and an active Catholic student population. Now, Notre Dame has a right to embrace its Catholic identity, and its commitment is admirable. I also don’t regret my decision to attend this university, as Catholic education has only affirmed my Jewish faith and pride in my Jewish identity. Still, for non-Catholic students, there’s a necessary adaptation to the campus environment.

In my case, I sought a Jewish community to join. I attended services at local synagogues while engaging our local Jewish organizations. Notre Dame has a Jewish Club, but its small numbers and lack of ties to established Jewish institutions limited its abilities to provide the vibrant Jewish community common at other universities. I reached out to these institutions, such as Hillel and Chabad, about expanding to Notre Dame, but that was to no avail. It seemed that Notre Dame Jews weren’t important enough despite the antisemitism we experienced or the important opportunity to foster interfaith relations at a top religious university. In my second year, I joined the Jewish Club’s executive board and helped revitalize the club alongside some amazing people. Despite this improvement, we were still largely restricted from the broader community of Jewish students. At the time, Jewish students at Notre Dame would not have a seat at the table or be included in national conversations about Jewish life on campus. That is until Jewish on Campus (JOC) introduced the Ambassador Program in September 2021.

The Ambassador Program has played a crucial role in improving life for Jewish students at Notre Dame in three key ways. First, JOC has significantly helped the Jewish Club’s advocacy of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. The Working Definition was passed unanimously by Notre Dame’s Student Senate in April 2021. While we were proud of that accomplishment, we required greater guidance on advancing the definition to the administrative level. JOC offered essential resources to help us, such as inviting speakers to our educational sessions who were able to provide vital insight on navigating administrative bureaucracy and explaining the definition to a non-Jewish audience. JOC staff also assisted us in our communication strategy by explaining how the Working Definition applies to educational institutions. Although the Working Definition is still under administrative review, our interactions with the administration have been positive, especially for our broader efforts as a club.

Second, the Ambassador Program enabled me to host the first Passover Seder at Notre Dame since the beginning of the pandemic. We could provide an authentic Passover experience for over forty attendees through funding provided by the program. Participants included Jewish students, non-Jewish allies, members of student government, administrative officials, and members of the larger community. We were able to tell the Passover story, its significance today, and share this important Jewish tradition with the Notre Dame community. The event was a resounding success and has helped us foster new relationships on campus and strengthen current ones as we build coalitions to support Jewish students in every capacity on campus.

Third, JOC provided a platform for Notre Dame Jewish students to speak about their experiences. As an Ambassador, I voiced the concerns of my fellow Jews while working with Jewish students across the continent to craft solutions. Notre Dame Jews finally felt connected to a broader Jewish community and were empowered to seek change on our campus. The Ambassador Program has permanently changed the landscape of Jewish life at Notre Dame. As a freshman, I thought students like me didn’t have a voice. Now, as Ambassador President, I have the opportunity to continue advocating for my community and others like it on a larger scale while advancing the interests of Jewish students writ large. For that, I’m grateful to JOC.

During my time in the Ambassador Program, I found camaraderie and goodwill among a group of passionate Jewish advocates. For the Jewish students reading this who are in a similar situation as me, I empathize with you. I hope sharing my experience demonstrates that the Ambassador Program can make a difference on your campus by including you in our effort to improve the wellbeing of every Jewish student in North America. JOC and the Ambassador Program helped my campus significantly, and it can do the same for you.

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