You’re a freshman in college. It’s Friday night, and Hillel’s website announces a kickoff “Shabbat services and dinner.” You wonder, isn’t it supposed to be the other way around—dinner and then services? After all, you know about Jewish life—for years you were active in temple.
When you arrive, women in long skirts are standing over a tray filled with tealight candles and mumbling prayers, their hands covering their eyes. At the Shabbat service, students are chanting Hebrew prayers you’ve never heard. And after a hand-washing ritual you’ve never done, you say something to the person next to you—and everyone stares. (You later learn that between hand-washing and the recitation of the Hamotzi, one is supposed to be silent.)
As a Hillel rabbi at the University of Southern California, I often meet Reform students dismayed by their initial contact with the multidenominational Jewish campus community.
What’s a Reform student to do?
Be open to new experiences. As Reform Jews, we have a proud history of exploring and finding meaning in Jewish traditions. The dissonance between your Reform experience of Shabbat and traditional rituals affords you an opportunity to decide for yourself what’s meaningful. So give the full Kiddush or Birkat Hamazon a try. If you want a translated, transliterated, annotated, and easy-to-read Birkat Hamazon email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Also consider reading books about Shabbat, such as Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic The Sabbath, and asking a Hillel professional for resources. After your new Shabbat education and two or three more Hillel services, you might like this Shabbat experience. And if not, you’ll really know it’s not for you.
Bring Reform services to your campus. Contact the URJ KESHER College Department (email@example.com) for service templates, the Making a KESHER guide to organizing a Reform group/activities on campus, and other resources. From there, create a Facebook group for Reform Jews at your school, and ask Hillel to announce a camp/youth group reunion event to launch your new Reform community—with a song session, if you can. Then you can apply for funding— get NFTB Reform on Campus grant information —and you’re on your way.
Maximize your personal growth as a Jew. College is the ideal time to grow intellectually. Just as you’re afforded the opportunity to delve deeply into whatever subjects interest you, consider taking Jewish Studies classes. Find teachers and role models who can help you gain the Jewish knowledge you seek. If you have a choice of languages, consider studying Hebrew, a door to your Jewish heritage. Also, look into semester, summer, or spring-break study opportunities in Israel (see p.60). The more you learn about your religion, the more comfortable you’ll feel in a multidenominational setting—and with your own Jewish identity.
As the great sage Hillel teaches: zeil ug’mar, “Go and learn.”
—Jonathan Klein, rabbi,
University of Southern