Shabbos and Academia (Part 2)

In the first installment, I made arrangements for shabbos when I was scheduled to present at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research in Ithaca. Here’s what happened when I was there:

I presented on Thursday, and went to many panels that day. It was exhilarating. I loved the atmosphere of academia, I loved seeing what other students had been working on, I loved flitting from one panel to the next with an air of intense learning.

Since I knew from going back and forth on Thursday that the shuttle from my hotel to Ithaca College was really short, I also went to the Friday morning sessions. I was seriously loving the whole thing.

Friday afternoon, I showered, dressed, did my hair and makeup. I wasn’t lighting candles in my hotel room – I was walking over early to Cornell so that I’d have my phone on this first unfamiliar walk, and bringing a couple of books for the afternoon the next day.

This had been a point of tense discussion before I left. My father had insisted that it’s better to light where you’re sleeping than where you’re eating. But aside from all the hazards of lighting in a hotel room, I did want to get to the Cornell Chabad house before shabbos started. My father asked his rav, who said it was totally fine to have the Chabad rebetzin light for me even though I wasn’t sleeping there.

Before I left the hotel, I asked the front desk attendant if I could leave my key card with him. He was more than a little surprised. He wouldn’t even be on shift when I got back, he said. He called his manager, who also would not be on shift when I got back. They decided that they could leave my key card taped to the inner desk with a note for whoever would be there later.

Armed with Google maps printouts, I set out. It was snowing pretty heavily and took a lot longer than 40 minutes…

The meal itself was strange for me. The rabbi and his family were all religious, of course, and some of the Cornell and Ithaca students were too. But the Binghamton students were not. This was a kiruv trip.

The atmosphere was relaxed – the Binghamton students were allowed to use their phones, just not in the dining room or where any of the religious folk could see them. They didn’t do a very good job of hiding it, though, and I was left with this strange sense of shabbos being disturbed.

But at the same time, the religious guys freaked me out because there was no separate seating arrangement – I wound up sitting across from two Chabad guys, and next to one non-religious guy. I was obviously awkward, and I knew it – one of the Chabad dudes got his buddy to leave me alone at one point by making a joke about the “poor girl from Boro Park.”

I was the too-religious one in this whole situation…

After the Friday night meal, the rabbi had one of the male Ithaca students walk me back so I wouldn’t have to walk alone in the dark. His girlfriend accompanied us, but they kept that a secret from the rabbi…

I think that walk was the first time I realized just how sheltered and unaware I was. Here were two people who considered themselves totally frum, and he was exclaiming in amazement over some of the things I told them about Bais Yaakov or about my family’s frumkeit. The girl even protested at one point that she also went to a yeshiva. And I had to explain to her (and myself) the difference between a “frum girls yeshiva” and a “Bais Yaakov.”

That walk was also the first time I had to really defend my choice to study English literature. I did a fairly good job of it, and they were impressed. I was impressed with myself, too.

When I got back to the hotel, the night shift people all knew about my strange request – the day shift must have told them about it when they switched. The desk attendant, looking mildly amused, tried to hand me the card, but I help up my hands to stop him.

I don’t remember how I phrased it so that he understood that I needed him to open the door for me. I knew I couldn’t ask someone outright to be mechalel shabbos for me (even a goy), and that I had to hint at it. Somehow, he understood. He walked me to my door and let me in, tried to hand me the card then.

“Could you just put it on the dresser?” He did. I was beyond embarrassed by that point.

I was so miserable about all of it, I had been so uncomfortable at the Friday night meal, that I considered sleeping in and staying in the hotel shabbos morning. But I’d left my phone and books at the Chabad house, and had no way of getting them after shabbos.

So I walked back in the morning, spent the afternoon there, and actually relaxed enough after the meal to have a decent conversation with someone (male – gasp!) about the book I was reading.

I wondered later if the whole thing was worth it. I had loved the conference and felt exhilarated by my participation in that world. But I hated everything I had to do to be able to attend.

Was attending the conference worth the headache and miserable feeling I was left with?

But the next year, I did it all again. More on that story later…


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