How Hillel Gave Me a Second Chance at “Being Jewish”

College, like most things, isn’t like how the movies portray it to be. Walking on campus at Vanderbilt University, I sincerely believed I would be instantly surrounded by my twelve closest friends who I would grow old with. Needless to say, that did not happen. Instead of my happy-go-lucky dreams, I was met with an environment of competitiveness – academic and otherwise. This competitiveness even seeped through to one of the areas I’ve always been self-conscious about, my Judaism. However, I wouldn’t trade my horrendous first-semester experience for the world because it changed me in profound ways and ultimately improved my life.

I once read a story that pretty accurately describes my Jewish childhood experience (so I’ll just tell you that instead of enlightening you with the details of how much I hated Hebrew school pizza). There once was a Rabbi who had just gotten a job at a synagogue, only to find out that there was a rat infestation. He tried everything from rat traps to professional exterminators, but they simply wouldn’t budge. The Rabbi finally called the synagogue’s former Rabbi and asked him what to do. To this, he responded, “The solution is easy, all you need to do is bar or bat mitzvah all of them and you’ll never see them again!”

I am, without a doubt, one of the rattiest rats around. After my bat mitzvah, my appearances at my temple were minimal to non-existent. I always wanted to participate in youth groups or go to camp and meet people from all over the place, but I was just too scared. After I missed that first deadline to apply, it was too late to hop on the train that was already blowing full steam ahead. I was consistently reminded of my lack of participation on social media, where I would see tons of pictures from camp and BBYO conventions. In those moments, I promised myself that I would participate in Jewish organizations in college, where I would be given a clean slate.

As it turns out, pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is much easier said than done. Luckily for me, Hillel was persistent in their freshmen recruitment. Before the school year had even started, Hillel created a Facebook group “Vandy Jews of 2020,” where they posted information on how to get involved. Minutes after I added myself to the group, in the midst of my stalking my fellow Vandy Jews, I received a friend request from “Vanderbilt Hillel.” At first, I thought it was just bizarre that an organization was registered on Facebook as a person, a friend, but I’ve realized that it’s quite symbolic.

Hillel members serving on the FYSH (First Year Students of Hillel) board.

With my foot in the door to the world of college Judaism, my excitement for college skyrocketed. During these couple of months before move in, I had to do something college related every day – reading a class syllabus, buying a shoe organizer for my closet, texting my roommate how excited I was, etc. – or I would go crazy. Hillel made this very, very easy. They posted countless times about something called “Big FYSH Little FYSH,” which is a spin-off of the FYSH (First Year Students of Hillel) initiative. Big FYSH Little FYSH pairs an incoming freshman with an upperclassman, who acts as their mentor for anything Hillel, college or life related. I still keep in touch with my Big FYSH Sara Starr, who helped me navigate through the first months of school when I blubbered about how I didn’t have any friends. Aside from Big FYSH Little FYSH, Hillel also invited us youngins to Move-In Shabbat on the night before the big day. I was terrified when I first walked in, late and dripping wet from Nashville’s notorious rain, but Hillel’s Programming Director Lauren Silverman assured me that I was fine and consequently pushed me into a circle of first-year students chatting. Lauren was the liaison between the first-years and the director of Hillel, and oversaw the FYSH. She quickly became one of my favorite people on campus and another person I blubbered to about the struggles of college. When I told Lauren that I didn’t do any of the Jewish things that the other FYSH had done, she told me that there was no such thing as “not being Jewish enough” and encouraged me to define “being Jewish” on my own.

Lauren pushed me to apply to FYSH Board, a committee of freshmen who planned events for all the other freshmen and other Hillel members. It was through FYSH Board that I met my best friend Rachel Gross, who I now cannot imagine doing life without (thanks, Lauren!). Rachel and I bonded over how scary college was, our shared love for food, the fact that neither of us had any friends (notice a trend?) and how neither of us was even mediocrely involved in anything Jewish post-bat mitzvah.

Rachel and I took it upon ourselves to become extremely involved in Hillel, to make up for all of our lost time. In FYSH Board, we heavily participated in planning events like “Sukkah under the Stars” for Sukkot and a Passover breakfast-themed Break Fast. We hung out (read, napped and snacked) at the Hillel building in between classes, as it was conveniently located on the main campus, a 15-minute walk from our dorms, and was always stocked with snacks. If snacks wouldn’t do the trick, we walked downstairs and used a meal swipe at the locally-owned vegetarian restaurant, Grins, inside the building. We joined Challah for Hunger, where a small group of underclassmen baked challah in delicious and quirky flavors and sold it the following day at lunch, donating the proceeds to both a Nashville Food Project and a national Jewish anti-hunger charity, Mazon. While pretending to be a Jewish mother at CFH was a highlight of my Hillel experience, it was Shabbat that I look back on so dearly now. Every Friday evening, Rachel and I would trek over to the Hillel building and sit in a small circle with our fellow students. We’d go around the circle and talk about our highs and lows of the week and recite prayers in a way that was one thousand times better than our respective temples at home (ask me how to sing Adon Olam to the tune of “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys). Shabbat always felt so homey, and the people sitting around the circle were like family.

Rose (left) and Rachel at the Passover Seder they planned.

Over time, this place I happened to go in between classes and Friday nights became the single most important aspect of my college experience. Hillel contributed so much to my growth over my freshman year of college. It provided me ample opportunities for leadership but in an encouraging environment that was so hard to find elsewhere on campus. I got to lead a Passover Seder with Rachel, which I would have never otherwise done, given my previous belief that I was a “bad Jew.” I got to learn about and delve into my Judaism. I got to be a part of a family. At times I wonder what my college experience would have been like if I dodged the (many, many) Hillel recruitment attempts. I wouldn’t have a great community, I wouldn’t have my best friend, and I wouldn’t know my religion, all of which got me through the horror of first semester and made me the person I am today. All I can say is thank you, Hillel, for changing my life.

Rose Capin is an intern at Arizona Jewish Life and beginning her sophomore year at Vanderbilt University in the fall of 2017.

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