Finding “your people” in college is all about discovering the overlapping communities where you feel at home. At UChicago, community comes in many forms. But whether it’s the community you find through your house, your clubs, or your sports teams, you’ll always find a group of people who match your excitement and your passion.
One of the ways that I’ve found my community on campus is through Jewish life. Much of my experience with Jewish life has been through UChicago Hillel, our branch of the international organization dedicated to Jewish cultural and religious life. Since Jewish life on campus is an important consideration in choosing a college for many students, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my own experience.
For many, the first semester at college means the first Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, spent away from your family. But although I wasn’t with my immediate family, I truly felt like I had a community beside me because of Hillel. By the end of my first prayer service at my new school, every single person in the congregation had come up to me and introduced themselves. Looking back, I’m sure I looked like a scared little freshman that they wanted to adopt, but I was certainly happy to be adopted! From that service on, those people really helped me find my place in the community, both religiously and socially.
On the religious side, Hillel offers a wide variety of services and opportunities for learning. We have an Orthodox service that meets daily, as well as weekly services for Reform, Conservative, and Egalitarian-Traditional students. Our services are primarily student-run, which means that there’s plenty of opportunities for leadership. And consistent with the UChicago spirit, everyone’s excited to participate and learn.
After a few weeks of attending services, one of my friends asked me if I’d like to lead the next section of prayer. I told her that I’d love to, but that I’d never actually learned how. “Well,” she said, “that’s not a problem at all!” And for the next month, she and I met twice a week until I felt confident enough to lead. Now I lead part of the service every week, and the entire congregation cheers me on every time.
There’s also plenty of opportunities for Jewish learning. Last winter, I participated in a Jewish Learning Fellowship. A group of 20 Jewish students of all different backgrounds and experiences, we met to discuss our opinions on religious texts and the way we feel these teachings fit into our identity today. I’ve participated in similar groups in the past, but this one was hands down the most special. What was new to me is that the people who I was learning alongside all shared the UChicago mentality and excitement around asking whacky questions. We were able to take that value which was so prevalent in our academic lives and apply it to our religious learning in a supportive, community setting.
One of the other things I love about UChicago Hillel is how open it is to the non-Jewish community. When you lead services for the first time, like I did a couple of months into my time at UChicago, it’s customary that your friends and family come and support you. Being relatively new to campus, I’d casually mentioned it to a few people, but I wasn’t particularly close with anyone yet and honestly didn’t expect many people to come. I couldn’t have been more wrong! So many of the friends I had made at college were just so eager to support me and learn about my culture that they were willing to skip their Saturday morning sleep-in to come hear me lead. It was the perfect feeling of community support.
On a larger scale, Hillel continues to support sharing Jewish culture with the broader community. Every year, we host the Latke-Hamentash Debate for the entire campus, in which UChicago faculty dress in their graduation robes and passionately and critically debate which Jewish food is best. We also host an annual formal called Nice Jewish Ball, aka “the dance you can take home to mom.” It’s a fun chance for the whole community to get dressed up and basically just dance to 2000s Bat-Mitzvah party tunes. And on the slightly less dressy side, we even hosted a PJ party Shabbat dinner where we all showed up to Hillel in our PJs and ate breakfast for dinner.
No matter your background, if you want Jewish life and Hillel to be part of your college experience, it’ll welcome you with open arms. I’m grateful for the community’s energy and openness and how much of an impact it’s had in helping me build my new home.