At the end of the spring 2022 semester, Livingston couple David and Karen Mandelbaum donated a generous grant to the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) at Princeton University in order to renovate the Orthodox Union-supervised dining facilities as Jewish life expands on campus. David Mandelbaum graduated from Princeton in 1957. Called the “Mandelbaum Family Dining Pavilion,” it will give space to the growing Jewish population at the University and will welcome Jews and non-Jews alike. Princeton is celebrating 50 years of on-campus kosher dining, just the third university behind Brandeis and Yeshiva University to have offered on-campus kosher options in the 1970s. As a first-generation college graduate, Mandelbaum — a former politician and part-owner of the Minnesota Vikings — feels intensely grateful to be able to give back to the institution that allowed him such a successful career.
Since Mandelbaum’s undergrad years, the Jewish presence on campus has risen significantly, but the religious spaces have lagged behind. Before the first kosher dining hall opened in 1971, many students noted the lack of kosher food options. Because many prospective Jewish students factor religious accommodations into their college decisions, the Mandelbaum Family Dining Pavilion will show Princeton’s support for their Jewish students by continuing to serve 20 meals each week, along with Shabbat dinners, Pesach seders and other important events that highlight Jewish culture.
For Orthodox yeshiva students, stepping into a secular environment for the first time can be a culture shock, but current Princeton student Elazar Cramer clarifies, “I felt pretty comfortable and pretty supported, especially with Chabad and CJL and the Orthodox community.” With around 100 Orthodox-affiliated Jews at Princeton, the beit midrash is always busy. “It’s a very small room but a really good amount of people come and learn every day and that’s very special for me; I try to be a part of that as much as I can,” Cramer said.
According to a timeline by the Princeton Alumni Weekly, ever since the first documented minyan took place in 1919, the Jewish population has grown to about 400 undergraduates. The dining hall, however, is open to Princeton’s entire student body. While students are not sure how the already beautiful and accommodating dining hall will be further improved, they are excited to see the transformation.
Students told The Jewish Link that the CJL does a great job of supporting Jewish life on campus, and now, with the grant, it will be able to help even more Jewish efforts for community-building. “We have a very diverse Jewish community. It’s an ongoing, constructive effort to have Jews of diverse backgrounds all feel part of one community,” executive director of the CJL, Rabbi Julie Roth, explained. With a strong emphasis on pluralism, all denominations feel at home at the CJL. “We eat together, daven together,” described Princeton student Ty Kay. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
With its long and rich Jewish history, the CJL has a very strong infrastructure in place to sustain and encourage its students. “A lot of people who didn’t grow up very religious are getting much more involved and finding a lot [in the CJL],” noted student Maya Rubinstein.
In 1984, Rabbi Edward Feld — Princeton’s students and Hillel International’s executive director from 1973-1992 — put together a proposal to form a committee that focused on supporting Jewish life on campus. Once that was approved by Princeton’s President William G. Bowen, the next step was to build a Jewish-focused center. In 1993, the Center for Jewish Life opened; it was established by Hillel International in partnership with Princeton as a space for Jews to eat, daven, study and spend time. According to their website, it promised to “[provide] for the social, educational, religious and spiritual needs of the Jewish community on campus.”
This is not only a special moment for Princeton, but for the whole Mandelbaum family. As poor Polish immigrants, David’s parents could hardly have imagined their son going to college; let alone giving back to others in such a big way. “I have old pictures of my father as a boy in Poland, standing in front of a wooden house, and I remember how emotional my parents became when they moved me into the Princeton dorm for the first time. It was hard for them to believe what had happened in just one generation. I am in awe of the education that I got at Princeton, and it is my privilege to give back to the university that did so much for me,” Mandelbaum said in a release. Mandelbaum strongly believes in the importance of a college education because of the many opportunities it gave him, and he wants every Princeton student to feel as lucky as he did back in the mid-1950s.
David Mandelbaum — a graduate of Harvard Law School — is a partner of the Mandelbaum & Mandelbaum real estate law firm. He also serves as a trustee of Vornado Realty Trust and as the director of Alexander’s, Inc., a real estate investment trust. In 2005, he joined the ownership group that purchased the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League. Karen Mandelbaum graduated from Kean College and serves as a trustee for the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, Icahn Charter Schools and the Livingston Symphony Orchestra of New Jersey. Three of the Mandelbaums’ sons have graduated from Princeton: Richard, in 1987; Michael, in 1989; and Jeffrey, in 1998.
Etta Feuer is a rising sophomore at Hunter College and a Jewish Link summer intern.