Growing up in a Conservative Jewish home and attending Jewish day school my entire life, it was not a question that I had to continue my deep connection to Judaism when I entered college at the University of Illinois. This year before the High Holidays, I needed to find the right place for me to connect to God while being away from my family over the holidays for the first time. The second I stepped into Illini Hillel at the Cohen Center for Jewish Life for Rosh Hashana services, I was greeted and welcomed with smiles. I felt a sense of belonging immediately.

Samantha Simon shows off her graham cracker and candy mock Sukkah that she made at Illini Hillel's Sukkah Hop in September 2013.

Samantha Simon shows off her graham cracker and candy mock Sukkah that she made at Illini Hillel’s Sukkah Hop in September 2013.

Over Sukkot, I participated in Hillel’s “Sukkah Hop.”  I had heard about it in Shabbat services the week before and, having no idea what a Sukkah Hop was, I knew I just had to stand underneath a sukkah in order to feel somewhat at home. So, I grabbed a friend and followed the older students off campus. We visited a beautiful sukkah outside of the rabbi’s home and made our own mini Sukkahs out of candy! I not only had a blast, but also once again, felt at home.

Before beginning college, I was nervous about missing Shabbat dinners at home with my family, but Hillel has made me feel comfortable and welcome. Throughout my busy weeks, I look forward to participating in the services and enjoying the Friday night dinners. It allows me to have a moment to relax, appreciate and reflect on my past week. Without Hebrew and Bible studies every day, as I performed in high school, Hillel allows me to have the space of personal Judaism and a connection to God. It gives me the communal Judaism I know I belong in, without being at my temple at home with my family.

I now continue to go to Hillel for Shabbat services and dinner every Friday night. I love the music, singing, connections and sense of community I receive there.