Student finds spiritual option

by Beacon Staff • November 8, 2006

For many, it is a time to unwind, hang out with friends or jump onto the overcrowded Green Line T heading out to Allston-Brighton.,As the sun goes down each Friday, it is not unusual to see the Emerson College dorms bustling with students getting ready for the night ahead.

For many, it is a time to unwind, hang out with friends or jump onto the overcrowded Green Line T heading out to Allston-Brighton.

For Elana Berenson, however, Friday night and the 25-hour period that follows hold personal and religious importance.

It is in preparation for this time, Shabbat, which begins before sundown on Friday and ends after nightfall on Saturday, that Berenson, a practicing Orthodox Jew, packs a bag each weekend and heads to Brookline where she stays with one of three families in her religious community.

Berenson, a freshman writing, literature and publishing major, described 39 traditional laws she observes during this time, one of which bars the use of electricity. Because she cannot travel to and from herdorm room in Piano Row without the use of an elevator, she has chosen to spend the Sabbath off campus.

Stairwells in Piano Row are closed and programmed with an emergency alarm during the weekend.

"If I wanted to, [Housing and Residence Life] said I could call security to turn off the alarm when I wanted to leave, but it would be awkward and weird and not worth the trouble," Berenson said.

She added that while she appreciates the thought behind the Office of Housing and Residence Life's (OHRL) alternative option, she prefers to spend a "more meaningful" Shabbat with members of her faith.

If the families she stays with are unable to have her one weekend, Berenson said she would have to rely on security to let her out.

"Worst case scenario, I guess I would stay in my room for 25 hours," Berenson said.

Despite this obstacle, Berenson said she is not angry or upset with the school and acknowledged the college's obligation to safety restrictions.

Berenson said before she arrived at Emerson she contacted OHRL, who attempted to accommodate her by placing her on a lower floor.

She also applied for an exemption, which she received, from the mandatory meal program because Aramark does not offer kosher options.

Instead of eating in the dining hall, she said she cooks using a microwave and the stovetop on her floor.

David Haden, associate dean of housing and residence life, said while he could not comment on any specific student's arrangement, a committee is in place to help review written requests for individuals in need of certain accommodations.

"Students also are often asked to provide documentation from a physician, therapist or religious leader explaining why the accommodation is considered necessary to their health or spiritual life, respectively," Haden told The Beacon in an e-mail.

Rabbi Al Axelrad, chair for the center for spiritual life, said his office, which offers a place for members of all faiths to gather and find community, is also available for students in need of religious, spiritual or personal guidance.

"This is a place where people can come with issues of all kinds," Axelrad said. "Our arms are open wide to students here."

Axelrad said he would never hesitate to "run interference" for a student who has specific needs that aren't being met at the school.

"While Emerson is a very secular sort of place, it's not that we're anti-religious," Axelrad said. "In my eight years here, I have never encountered any animosity, resistance, discourtesy or prejudice."