To say I was overwhelmed with the possibilities for community when I came to Penn is an understatement. With hundreds of clubs, classes, sports teams, and more, it felt like there were endless options to build community. All I had to do was choose—which felt like a pretty hefty decision to make.
In talking about all of these opportunities for community, it’s important to talk about what community meant to me. For me it was a larger network of people who I had something in common with. For some that means academic interests or hobbies, but for me it was people with a similar religious background and understood the cultural nuances of being Jewish. Sometimes it can be cumbersome to have to explain yourself or your religion regularly in conversation, and while that wasn’t the main reason why I wanted community, reasons like this added up into why I wanted to be apart of a group of people where I could feel understood.
That being said, one community I knew I wanted to be a part of was Penn Hillel, which is one of two Jewish cultural and religious centers on campus. I grew up not being as immersed in the Jewish community as I wish I was. And while I celebrated the holidays with my parents and felt strongly connected to my Israeli roots, I wanted to meet people I could share that with.
When I arrived at Penn Hillel on the first day of New Student Orientation (NSO), I was immediately overwhelmed by all the options. Here I was thinking that Hillel was the community, little did I know there are dozens of communities within Hillel! With all of these communities, it took me a bit to find my place. Whether it was Israel clubs, fellowships, or religious communities, I hopped around for a bit before I found what was right for me.
The first community I joined was that of the Penn Israel Alliance, which is one of over a dozen clubs under the Penn Coalition for Israel. We organize large-scale events with big speakers to share their thoughts on anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, the peace process, and more. Our first speaker was Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, who actually happened to be a Penn alum too! Hearing him speak on his time at Penn, his position as an ambassador, and see two hundred people in the room as a result of our work was an amazing feeling.
I continued to serve on the board, and over the course of the semester we brought in MK Tzipi Livni, one of the most famous women in Israeli politics to speak about her time as a Parliamentary representative, and journalists Bret Stephens and Peter Beinart to have a debate on Israel, anti-Zionism, and American Judaism. All three of these events left me feeling so proud and fired up to continue our work in bringing voices from all over the political spectrum to come and speak about Israel as a form of education and critical thinking for all.
Along with that, I took part in the Jewish Learning Fellowship during the spring semester. We met every week for an hour and a half, ending with dinner, and discussed modern topics like love, relationships, and family through a Jewish lens. We read the writings of different rabbis, discussed our personal experiences with practicing our Judaism, and connected as a group. It was a great way to meet people and strengthen my relationships with other members of the greater community.
You could now say that I’m a Hillel regular. I have the pleasure of knowing most of the staff from working there over the summer and now as a work-study student. I come to the Challah Bakes, study there from time to time, and help plan Shabbat dinners and speaker events. Through all of the things I’m involved in at Hillel, I feel a little less lost than I did a year ago as a first-semester freshman. I’ve made great friends, been supported through times of difficulty, and cheered on by staff and students there. I’m proud to be a part of the greater Hillel community, to have connected with my Judaism on my own terms, and to have made lifelong connections.