Mandelbaum lounge is exactly what any good gathering space should be, cozy and welcoming. Located on the first floor of Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life (CJL), on Washington Road, it has a sofa, two love seats, three upholstered chairs, and one upright piano. Light pours through a big bay window, across from a fireplace and a painting of Albert Einstein and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, a rendering of their 1951 meeting in Princeton. Ben-Gurion hoped to convince Einstein to become Israel’s first president. Alas, he did not get his man, Einstein saying that he lacked “the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people” in such a capacity.
At most any time of day, you will find the lounge (named for a prominent CJL benefactor, David Mandelbaum ’57, and his wife, Karen) teeming with students. For many of Princeton’s estimated 700 Jewish undergraduate and graduate students, it is a go-to meeting spot, adjacent to a University-run kosher kitchen that serves 42,000 meals a year. It’s a place that gladdens the heart of Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91, who returned to Princeton last summer to take over as executive director of CJL — a position that was accompanied by exhilarating upside as well as some daunting challenges.
Steinlauf sensed immediately how much the University had changed in his three decades away. He says he didn’t experience overt antisemitism as an undergraduate, but he was acutely aware of being “the Jewish kid” to his friends, and of the embedded culture of Protestant privilege that F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917 depicted in This Side of Paradise.
“[T]he pleasantest country club in America,” Fitzgerald called the University. Who would’ve imagined a couple of generations ago that Princeton, bastion of bluebloods, would join Yeshiva and Brandeis as one of the first three U.S. universities with a kosher kitchen?
“It’s extraordinary that [the CJL is flourishing] at a place like Princeton, which has such an unfortunate history not just toward the Jews, but to all previously marginalized communities,” Steinlauf says. “People of color have their own hell stories of what it was like being here, as well as anybody else who wasn’t white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The entire culture of the University has shifted, dramatically.”
As CJL celebrates its 30th anniversary this year — and Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, observes its 75th anniversary on campus — Steinlauf is uplifted by the transformation he has seen at Princeton, but is also keenly aware of the rise of antisemitic incidents all over the globe and of the discord on his own campus, which has been roiled recently by sometimes vitriolic opposition from both pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist groups who have been sharply critical of some of CJL’s core beliefs and programming. Indeed, before Steinlauf got to his first Hanukkah on his return to campus, the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) issued a letter to the student body calling for a boycott of Israel Tiger Trek, a trip co-sponsored by CJL that aims to connect students with Israel’s flourishing entrepreneurial culture. The PCP letter said Tiger Trek effectively legitimizes Israeli “apartheid” and fosters ties to companies that do business with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“If you go on Israel Tiger Trek, you are complicit in the occupation of Palestine,” the letter said.
Steinlauf responded with a strongly worded rebuttal, assailing the PCP letter for invoking longstanding antisemitic tropes and being “part of the broader antisemitic trend that singles out Israel, the world’s only Jewish nation, for condemnation. These tactics are not only divisive; they are also deeply painful for many in the Jewish community [and are] … out of line with the values of Princeton University.” Steinlauf went on to say that CJL emphatically supports Israel’s legitimacy “while also seeking a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that allows all residents of the region to live with dignity, security, opportunity, and freedom.”
Sitting in his well-ordered corner office of the second floor of CJL, Steinlauf seemed unfazed both by the tempest and the letter that was published in The Daily Princetonian excoriating his rebuttal, the 12 signees accusing him of spreading “an exclusionary, right-wing message that made it clear that Jews who are not sufficiently Zionist are not welcome within the CJL community.” He said he was impressed with the students’ passion and thoughtfulness and reached out to all of them, meeting several for coffee, lunch, or a campus walk, and came away encouraged, differences notwithstanding.
“Our students think about all the issues. It’s not just reactive,” Steinlauf says. “It’s not just the progressive idea du jour. There are extremely progressive students here, but there also are extremely thoughtful students.”
“Our students think about all the issues. It’s not just reactive. It’s not just the progressive idea du jour. There are extremely progressive students here, but there also are extremely thoughtful students.”
— Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91
Phil Steinlauf arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1987 from Jericho High School in New York, with no notion of becoming a rabbi. He signed up for Hebrew 101 and began attending Shabbat dinners on Friday nights in Stevenson Hall, a repurposed social club that housed Princeton’s kosher kitchen before CJL was built. His plan was to study Near Eastern history, but the more active he became in the University Jewish community, the more friends began telling him he would make a great rabbi. When he heard the same thing from Rabbi Edward Feld, then the head of Princeton’s Hillel chapter, that clinched it. Phil Steinlauf enrolled in rabbinical school, where he studied for six years and changed his name to Gil — the male equivalent of his great-grandmother’s name.
It means joy in Hebrew.
A youthful looking 53-year-old, Steinlauf has a salt-and-pepper beard and trim physique. He begins his days with meditation, and often with a four-mile run through campus or past Lake Carnegie, and can frequently be found talking with students, whether over a lunch at CJL, or at Small World Coffee on Nassau Street. His days are extremely different from those in his previous position, as rabbi of Congregation Kol Shalom in Rockville, Maryland. (Before that, Steinlauf led Adas Israel, a prominent conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., where his congregants included Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan ’81 and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) Bashert is a Yiddish word that means “it was meant to be.” It was bashert that called him to return to Princeton.
“I trace my own Jewish awakening to what Hillel at Princeton did for me, and now all these years later I get to work [here],” he says. “There’s something wonderful about that. It’s a spiritually fulfilling act for me to come back to this place and be able to play a role, together with the staff, to inspire our students to integrate a meaningful sense of Judaism and Jewish community heritage in their own identity.”
A number of Steinlauf’s friends and colleagues were surprised he would want to become a college rabbi, even at a prestigious institution where he had a strong connection. It was, by any measure, a brave career move, though not nearly as brave as the email he sent in the fall of 2014, telling the entire Adas Israel congregation that he was gay. He wrote about how much he loved his wife, Batya, who is also a rabbi and the mother of their three children, but he could no longer live a lie.
“Any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar,” Steinlauf wrote, quoting the Talmud. “Ultimately the dissonance between my inside and my outside became undeniable, then unwise, and finally intolerable.”
Synagogue leaders wholeheartedly supported — and even celebrated — Steinlauf’s courage.
As both a young undergraduate and a middle-aged rabbi, Steinlauf has always appreciated the pluralism that is at the core of Hillel International. Every Friday night, there are three separate Shabbat services at CJL for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform students, and then they all get together in the dining room next to Mandelbaum Lounge. The CJL has a group of Jewish Latin students and Jewish Asian students. The organization has 80 student leaders and, according to the CJL, has engaged with 91% of Princeton students who identify as Jewish, an extraordinarily high percentage, according to Susannah Sagan, campus support director of Hillel International. Whether it’s Thursday Night Torah (yes, they call it TNT) or Koleinu, an a cappella group that performed at the White House during the 2022 holiday season, or an array of programs that take students abroad, CJL is deeply woven into the fabric of campus life.
“Princeton is a great place to be Jewish,” says Marni Blitz, senior program adviser at CJL.
Not all Jewish students at Princeton are so sanguine about CJL, however. Emanuelle Sippy ’25 is the president of the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP), which she describes as “an anti-capitalist, anti-racist collective of non- and anti-Zionist Jewish students who stand in solidarity with Palestinians.” While acknowledging that CJL plays an important role in Jewish life on campus, Sippy says, “The CJL can be a very alienating and unwelcoming place for progressive, non- and anti-Zionist Jewish students. I often attend Conservative Shabbat services at CJL, but even in a space that is supposed to be ‘apolitical’ there is a presumption that everyone is Zionist,” adding that “it isn’t uncommon for people to acknowledge or mourn the killings of Israelis without any recognition of the loss of Palestinian lives.”
When the English department invited Mohammed El-Kurd, a prominent Palestinian poet and writer, to deliver a lecture in February, it brought the fissures between progressive, pro-Palestinian Jews and the CJL into stark relief. El-Kurd has referred to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as the “Apartheid Defense League” and likened the Israeli occupation of Palestine to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a statement to The Daily Princetonian before the talk, Steinlauf wrote that “there are many speakers who advocate for the Palestinian cause without using the incendiary and hateful language about Jewish people that Mr. El-Kurd uses.” During a Q&A session following the lecture, Chabad Rabbi Eitan Webb shouted, “I would like to thank you very much for giving a master class on how to be an antisemite.”
The comment was followed by a brief chant of “Free Palestine!” Sippy later told The Daily Princetonian that AJP was “disappointed by the disruptive conduct of some members of the Jewish community, who do not speak for all Jews on this campus.”
Through most of its first two centuries, Princeton experienced no debates about Judaism, for good reason: There were no Jews on campus. While the preamble to the 1748 charter called for no religious discrimination, four of the seven founding trustees were Presbyterian ministers. For well over 200 years, every president of Princeton was a Protestant clergyman, or the son of one, according to Abigail Klionsky ’14, whose senior thesis explored the history of Jewish student life on campus. James McCosh, Princeton’s president from 1869 to 1888, once wrote, “Withdraw Christianity from our colleges, and we have taken away one of the vital forces which have given life and body to our higher education.” Princeton continued to have mandatory Sunday morning chapel attendance until 1964; Harvard made its chapel attendance voluntary in 1886.
Mordecai Myers 1812 was among the the first Jewish students to matriculate at Princeton. It wasn’t until 1915, when the Jewish population on campus reached 50, that the first Shabbat service took place. The number of Jewish students eventually reached 200, but for decades did not budge from there, raising suspicions of a quota, official or otherwise — a notion that Radcliffe Heermance, the University’s longtime director of admission, vehemently denied.
“We’ve never had a quota system, we don’t have a quota system, we will never have a quota system,” he told The Daily Princetonian in 1948.
(University president John Grier Hibben 1882 did not bolster Heermance’s position in an exchange he had with Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago in the early 1930s — a conversation brought to light by Steven L. Buenning ’71, whose thesis was a biography of Hibben. Hutchins asked Hibben how many Jewish students there were at Princeton. “About 200,” Hibben said. Then Hutchins asked how many Jewish students there were the year before. “About 200,” Hibben said. And the year before that? “About 200.” Hutchins commented that this seemed odd and Hibben said he really couldn’t account for it, until Mrs. Hibben interjected, “Jack Hibben, I don’t see how you can sit there and lie to this young man. You know very well that you and Dean Eisenhart get together every year and fix the quota.”)
Nowhere were Princeton’s inhospitable ways towards Jewish students more apparent than in the eating clubs, the sociocultural epicenter of student life for more than a century. In an annual Princeton rite of spring, students apply for admission to one of the clubs through a process known as bicker. Each club had its own image and cachet to uphold, and if you were genetically blessed or supremely athletic or were otherwise deemed worthy of membership in one of the elite eating clubs, you had effectively won the orange-and-black lottery. If you were not deemed worthy and considered “unclubbable,” then you were essentially a social pariah. Clubs insisted there was no systemic antisemitism, but that contention was exposed in the infamous “Dirty Bicker” of 1958, when 23 students were deemed unclubbable — and 15 of them were Jewish. The New York Times and other major news media outlets covered the story, and the ensuing firestorm did not cast the University in the best light. From that low, Jewish student life gradually improved, particularly with the 1964 repeal of the chapel requirement and the school opening its door to women five years later. Hillel programming became more robust, and the stigma of being a Jewish student at Princeton began to diminish. In 1984, a Princeton Hillel panel drafted a proposal to build a Center for Jewish Life. The idea was endorsed by President William G. Bowen *58 and was approved by the University in 1988. Construction was originally set to be funded with a $750,000 gift from securities trader Ivan Boesky, before Boesky was found guilty of insider trading and fined $100 million. Other funding was secured and the building, with input from a student committee that included Phil Steinlauf, was designed by architect Robert A.M. Stern. It opened its doors at 70 Washington Road — site of the old Prospect Club — in 1993.
The Talmud contains thousands of pages of rabbinic text that amount to debate over theological issues — machloket leshem shamayim in Hebrew. The literal translation is “disagreeing for the sake of heaven.”
“The thing about these arguments is that they are done respectfully, civilly. They are done with love,” Steinlauf says. “Different rabbis have different perspectives. This rabbi might make sense in this generation, but this disagreeing rabbi might make sense to another generation. That’s the nature of the Jewish tradition. Our entire identity is heterogeneous in terms of embracing partial truths on all sides. We actually have the potential, as a Jewish community at a world-class Ivy League university, to lift up this very Jewish gift to Princeton and the wider world — this Jewish approach to embracing difference, celebrating difference, leaning into it courageously.
“That’s the goal — lean into it. Work with the energy of that. This is a fact of life. This is the world we live in ... . The Torah says we are supposed to be a light to the nations. This is one of the ways in which we can be.”
Keeping the light burning in the current sociopolitical climate is not always easy. According to data gathered by the ADL, there were 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the U.S. in 2021, a 34% increase from 2020, and the most ever recorded since the ADL began tracking such incidents in 1979. Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists have won elections and used their platform to spew misinformation and rail about an evil, omnipotent global cabal of Jews, all of it inflamed by social media, which Steinlauf calls “the perfect match for the powder keg of hate.” When CJL formed a search committee to replace Rabbi Julie Roth h’21, an immensely popular leader over her 17 years, one of the key characteristics it was seeking in a rabbi was one who could be a comforter and unifier in these polarizing times. Julie Levey ’24, current CJL student president, says there was a “collective sigh of relief” among committee members after they came upon Steinlauf’s application. Here was a Princeton alum, affable and erudite, a natural teacher with an inclusive approach and a broad appeal. Virtually every week at Shabbat service, Steinlauf will share a simcha moment — Hebrew for “festive occasion.”
“His simcha moment is the present. It’s getting to spend Shabbat with all of us,” Levey says. “He has impressed me and everyone else with his extensive passion for Jewish leadership and his commitment to allow all of us to be our best selves.” While “everyone” may not include members of the Princeton Committee on Palestine or the AJP, Steinlauf is philosophically open to discussion and debate and continuing to argue for the sake of heaven. Nothing good happens when emotions run so hot that dialogue is shut down altogether.
Rabbi Justin David, dean of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, is one of Steinlauf’s closest friends. “A lot of people seek deeper understanding,” David says. “But Gil seeks to translate that deeper understanding into ways of being — study, prayer, community engagement, helping people — through which people change their lives.”
To Steinlauf, the best response to hate is to seek the good in people, to not give in to despair. If he finds himself needing a psychological boost, Steinlauf will walk downstairs from his office at 70 Washington Road, 100 yards from the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue that for decades shunned Jews. He will venture into Mandelbaum Lounge and take in the energy and entropy, the spectacle of a room full of Jewish students sharing space and a sense of belonging. It will make him feel very good.
Wayne Coffey is a freelance journalist and author of more than 30 books. He lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York.