A little over three years ago, I was going through the exciting and stressful process of applying to colleges; there were many factors involved, but a strong Hillel was not one of them, although I had grown up as part of a Reform Jewish Community.
Certainly, I wanted a place to go for services during the High Holy Days, and I was interested in participating in Taglit-Birthright Israel, but these things seemed pretty secondary to me at the time. Today, when people ask how I became so involved in the Johns Hopkins University Hillel, I have to resist answering “by accident,” because looking back, my journey seems to be a natural (although often subconscious) process toward defining my Jewish self-identity. It was not my original intention, but Hopkins Hillel most certainly has become a defining aspect of my college experience. I am continually amazed and grateful for the support network I have found there, as well as the incredible opportunities that I’ve discovered through continued involvement.
My original involvement with Hopkins Hillel started after I had participated in Birthright my freshman year, when a friend asked me to join him in leading monthly Reform Shabbat services. Previously, Reform services were not offered at all at Hopkins Hillel, and we both thought it crucial that there were opportunities for Jews of all kinds to be able to connect and pray on Shabbat.
Before we knew it, there were people asking us to hold services at least twice a month; we renamed it “community” services because there were students from many different backgrounds (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist) who would come to sing and share Shabbat. To our great delight, we also received a lot of support from the Conservative and Orthodox minyans; it was through these interactions that I began to realize what a unique and enriching environment Hillel has the potential to be.
As Jews, all of the students who sit down for Friday night dinner at Hillel have a lot in common: We all have a kind of shared heritage; all of us know how to say the Motzi and Kiddush before we eat; and, of course, everyone loves the matzo ball soup.
Yet, despite the fact that we have many similarities, we also have so much to learn from each other. Peers from the Orthodox minyan have fallen in love with a beautiful melody of Hashkiveinu sung at community services, and I personally have learned a lot about kashrut and the meanings of many of the traditions of my more observant friends.
Hillel is a unique Jewish space because, unlike any time before or after college, students who identify with Judaism, from Orthodoxy to simply culturally Jewish, share the same space. While these differences may at times be challenging, framed in the right light, they can be seen as part of Hillel’s greatest draw.
Recognizing the benefit of our differences, and how we can learn from each other, is certainly a process; Hillel is an invaluable resource to Jewish life on college campuses because it not only facilitates our personal Jewish journeys, but also fosters a diverse and connected Jewish community.
Ellie Kaplan is a cognitive science major at Johns Hopkins University. He is also a Hillel