Welcome to my first blog about Jewish life on campus! Of course everyone’s Jewish experience on campus is different, but I hope you can find something in my story that you can relate to. A little bit about myself: I am a junior at the University of Connecticut, where I’m majoring in Human Development and Family Studies. My major focuses on the relationships and dynamics between individuals and families and the growth and development of both. I am active in my sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, and in the Hillel on campus. I love being a UConn husky, and I’m glad I still have two years left.
My story begins before I even went to college. I grew up in a Jewish household. I attended Hebrew school from kindergarten to graduation. My mom is the cantor of our synagogue, and my family celebrates and observes all the major Jewish holidays. Judaism has always been and continues to be a big part of my identity. Once I decided to attend UConn, I took a few tours of the Hillel and already knew I would spend all my time there. Growing up, most of my friends were Jewish, and I basically lived at my temple, so I assumed I would have a similar experience at college.
However, at the beginning of my freshman year, I visited Hillel a few times and did not like it as much as I thought I was going to. The people there looked like they already had their groups of friends; it didn’t have the vibe I was expecting; I didn’t feel at home at all; and I decided to avoid Hillel altogether. For my entire first semester at college, I almost never went to Hillel, and I decided to try to find friends elsewhere.
For the spring semester, I decided to take a Judaic Studies class because I thought it would be easy… I was wrong. It wasn’t my favorite class, but I did meet two of my favorite people in the class. My two new friends were apparently pretty active in Hillel, so I decided to give Hillel another chance. My friends and I studied for our Judaic Studies class in Hillel, and I eventually became a lot more comfortable walking in the building and finding people I could talk to. Eventually, I made a bunch of new friends, and somehow, one thing led to another, and now I basically live in Hillel.
Now, my main group of friends is from Hillel. This past year, a bunch of us even ran for Hillel board positions. I am currently the VP of Engagement, which means I try to get more students involved in Hillel and I help them feel comfortable in the building. I am also a FYSH (First Year Students of Hillel) mentor for incoming Jewish freshmen. One of my friends is the VP of FYSH, and he sets up incoming Jewish students with Jewish upperclassmen so they can adjust to life at UConn and already have a familiar face at Hillel. I really enjoy being this active in the Hillel and the Jewish community because I feel like I have found my place at UConn and I’m part of one big mishpacha.
All of my friends at Hillel come from different Jewish backgrounds. One of my friends stopped going to Hebrew school in 3rd grade and then went back for her senior year to become a bat mitzvah. Another one of my friends follows halacha (e.g., keeps strictly kosher and is shomer Shabbos). A bunch of us were raised in different sects of Judaism (i.e., Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox), but we all get along great. These people are the best friends I could ever ask for, and I love learning something new from them everyday.
My Jewish experience on campus has definitely changed—or at least slightly altered—some of my perceptions of being Jewish. Recently, I’ve come to appreciate Shabbat more because my friends and I have made new Shabbat traditions that we keep every week. Even if people are stressed with their crazy busy schedules during the week, Shabbat dinner is the one meal of the week when I can count on seeing everyone. I love the way my friends and I spend Shabbat because I feel like we get to truly observe the Sabbath by spending quality time with each other and actually taking a break. Before college, Shabbat usually meant going to temple for services. At school, Shabbat feels more dynamic, and I always look forward to it.
My Jewish identity has always been important to me, but in college, I’ve definitely been able to take the reigns on my own Jewish identity and find my favorite parts of being Jewish. No one told me I had to be active in Hillel, but now I try to engage other students to be a part of the Hillel community. No one is telling me to go to Shabbat services, but I volunteer to lead them. In the beginning of college, I turned away from Hillel too quickly and didn’t give it enough of a chance. As a freshman (or at any age, really), keeping an open mind and being flexible can definitely help you find your place at school and maybe learn a little more about yourself.