It has only been a few months since David DeFelice officially became a “member of the tribe,” as he puts it, but in that short time the Duquesne University sophomore already has made his campus more welcoming for other Jewish students.
DeFelice, who is originally from Erie, Pa., has revived the dormant Jewish Students Organization at the private Catholic university and has proven to be a pro-Israel voice that also is not shy about calling out anti-Semitism.
There are not too many Jewish students at Duquesne; Hillel International’s website estimates that Jews comprise fewer than 1 percent of the undergraduate population of 5,800.
Past efforts to provide cultural activities for Jewish students at Duquesne were difficult to sustain, according to Danielle Kranjec, senior Jewish educator at Pittsburgh’s Hillel Jewish University Center. Kranjec cited unsuccessful efforts by other students several years ago to establish a sustainable chapter of AEPi, a fraternity that traditionally has been Jewish, and to generate momentum for the JSO.
But DeFelice, having just returned from a Birthright trip to Israel over winter break, just may be the one to get things going again.
Duquesne’s newly revived JSO is supported by Pittsburgh’s Hillel JUC, which serves the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University and Jewish students attending Chatham University, Carlow University, Robert Morris University and Point Park University as well.
“Hillel supports Jewish students on all of our campuses and our main role has been to help empower students,” said Kranjec. “David DeFelice has shown extraordinary leadership and we are happy to provide him with whatever resources we can.”
DeFelice was raised Christian, he said, having come to Judaism through study with Conservative rabbis.
“It was a long process,” explained the political science/international relations double major, who discovered during his junior year in high school through a genetic test that he might have Ashkenazic Jewish blood on his father’s side.
He began learning with a rabbi in Erie, and the religion resonated with him. He eventually knew that he was destined to become a Jew. When he came to Pittsburgh in 2015 to attend college, he began studying with Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom and enrolled in his conversion class.
“I went to the mikvah last semester,” DeFelice said, completing his conversion.
While his family back in Erie was “hesitant at first” about his conversion, they eventually have embraced his decision.
“Both of my parents are pretty Christian, so there was a bit of confusion,” he said. “But ultimately, when they saw how important it was for me, they understood.”
DeFelice attends Shabbat services regularly at Beth Shalom and at the Hillel JUC. It was at Hillel that he was recruited to go on the winter break Birthright trip.
“The trip definitely strengthened my Jewish identity,” he said. “Being in your homeland is really significant.”
While on the trip, DeFelice celebrated his bar mitzvah by having an aliyah at the Kotel, where he also put on tefillin at the behest of a man in the indoor complex where the group was shielding from the rain.
“When I was exiting, the man said, ‘Welcome home,’” DeFelice said. “That was the first time in my life that I really felt like a Jew.”
Birthright helped to fuel his enthusiasm to continue his work with Hillel, and the JSO at Duquesne. In January, the JSO hosted its first event, partnering with Chabad at Duquesne to host a commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The event, which drew about 25 people, featured a candle-lighting ceremony along with music, poetry and a reading of names of some of those murdered in the Holocaust.
So far, the revived JSO has 15 registered members, according to DeFelice, but he hopes to grow the group in the fall semester on “organization day,” when student groups set up tables to recruit new members.
“I hope then more Jewish people on campus will know we exist,” he said.
In the meantime, DeFelice is busy advocating for Israel and the Jewish people. He published an opinion piece in the Duquesne Duke earlier this month in which he defended the Jewish state, condemned anti-Semitism and encouraged open dialogue between those of different religions and ethnicities.
While on this Birthright trip, DeFelice wrote in his op-ed, he forged friendships with members of the Israel Defense Forces, whose stories provided insight on how personal the struggle for peace is and “why they fight so hard.”
“Their stories showed me that I should never apologize for being Jewish, I should not shy away from talking about Israel and, most importantly, that I should be proud of who I am,” he wrote.
DeFelice intends to continue with JSO programming this semester and is planning an event in commemoration of
Yom Ha’atzmaut, as well as educational programs concerning Israel and the Jewish holidays.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.