Black and Jewish, Fedline Saintina Finds a Home at Rutgers Hillel

Black and Jewish, Fedline Saintina Finds a Home at Rutgers Hillel

Saintina is one of many Jewish students from a diverse background at Rutgers Hillel, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary

Fedline Saintina infront of Rutgers Hillel on the College Avenue Campus of Rutgers-New Brunswick.
Fedline Saintina infront of Rutgers Hillel on the College Avenue Campus of Rutgers-New Brunswick. 
Photo: Dana Weiss

"I knew Judaism could be diverse, but I didn’t know how diverse and how accepting until I got to Hillel.’’
 
– Fedline Saintina

Growing up the daughter of an Afro-Caribbean mother and Jewish father, Fedline Saintina was used to her skin color being the first thing people noticed when she walked into religious events.

People would ask if she was lost, or looking for someone, when she walked into a Jewish space. The questions about her identity were so frequent, she felt she always had to be ready to explain herself.

But when she came to Rutgers Hillel it was different. Questions centered around what she was looking for from Jewish life, her experience and knowledge of Judaism, but not her appearance.

“When you are a person of color, it’s the first thing people see when you walk in a room,’’ Saintina said. “At other Jewish organizations, I stuck out like a sore thumb, but at Hillel the conversation didn’t focus on what I looked like or whether or not my mom was black. They were trying to get to know me and know what to offer me. It was really refreshing.’’

Saintina, a senior physics major from Union Township, had a hard time finding a place she fit in when she tried to get involved in Jewish life on campus. Her mother wasn’t Jewish, so she didn’t fit the definition of what it means to be Jewish under strict Jewish law.

But she was confident at a campus as diverse as Rutgers, home to one of the largest Jewish student populations in the country, there was a place for her. Saintina was raised Jewish, had her Bat Mitzvah in Israel and grew up going to services on the holidays with her father.

Then a classmate suggested she reach out to Hillel at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, a local chapter of the international organization that offers activities and religious services for Jewish students of all denominations. The Rutgers chapter, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2018, reaches nearly 2,000 students a year though its programs.

Saintina was instantly welcomed. She was given a spot in the organization’s Birthright Israel trip, an international program that provides free travel for young Jewish adults, during her first year at Rutgers.

At Hillel, Saintina had the opportunity to take on leadership roles. She organized a Shabbat dinner with the Center for Latino Arts and Culture that embraced her Latin roots and helped build a bridge between the two communities at Rutgers.

“Having events like that opens up the Jewish community to see other people, and introduces us to other cultures,’’ Saintina said. “To sit down for dinner together puts everyone on a level that is equal and then you see all the similarities we have. We all have crazy moms that force us to eat too much, we all love music, we all have a strong family dynamic and culture.’’

As a member of the LGBTQ community, Saintina also found a home with Jewish Allies and Queers, a student-run group at Hillel. This year she is serving on the executive board as the vice president of pluralism and education. She wants to organize an event that brings together the Paul Robeson Cultural Center and Hillel to allow the black and Jewish communities on campus to explore their common ties. She also plans to organize secular events that tackle such topics as managing money, sexual health and safety in love and relationships to help students prepare for life after college.

At Hillel she learned her story was not unique. She met other Jewish students who came from diverse backgrounds and found a space that provided everything she was looking for out of campus life.

“If I need a gay support group, I have one. If I need to connect with other Jews of color, there are plenty of other Jewish students who have a diverse ethnic background. If I want a Conservative service, they’ve got them. If I want a Reform service, they have it,’’ she said. “Everything you could possible need is there.’’   

Now when Saintina walks in the door at Hillel, everyone says "Hi," and knows who she is. There is never a question of whether she belongs.

“I knew I couldn’t be in the only one in the world who has an experience like mine, where I have a black mom and a Jewish dad,’’ Saintina said. “I knew Judaism could be diverse, but I didn’t know how diverse and how accepting until I got to Hillel.’’