A good deal of time passed in my life where Judaism was very far back in my mind. Jewish life for me used to just mean meeting up with extended family and friends for the holidays, and here and there Friday night dinners with my family were made a little more special by turning them into Shabbat dinners.
Roughly two years ago that changed. As I became more inclined to follow and engage in political affairs, my interest in Israel became a more dominant factor in my life. As discussions on Israel between friends and Hillel staff became a routine activity, in time the inevitable questions arose: Why is Israel important? Why does it matter to me if Israel exists?
The immediate answer I came up with was simply one word: Judaism. But in time, I realized that this answer was not encompassing enough for me. If there was far more to Israel that I loved, more than just Judaism, and if religion was not a big feature in my life, then why was it my first reaction?
I believed and followed many Jewish values, but I barely practiced religiously. I did not attend services either Friday evening or Saturday, keep kosher, wear a yarmulke, or many of the other basic observances of Judaism. Yet Judaism was what first came to mind, and now, after nearly two full years of reflecting and digesting the topic, I think I know why.
As I began my involvement supporting Israel on campus at the University of Pittsburgh, I also began spending more time at Hillel. Initially, it was Shabbat dinners, meeting and sharing a meal with new faces, some of which became good friends. As time progressed, I came back around on Mondays for Shabbat leftovers then throughout the week, stopped by to do work for our campus AIPAC cadre, PIPAC.
Eventually I began studying for school at Hillel rather than at previous spots. I knew coming into this semester as a commuter, I would need somewhere to spend the day outside of classes. What was once a place for frequent visits soon evolved into a comfortable “home-away-from-home” for spending hours at a time. More often than not, it would be nearly the full day.
My favorite memories of Hillel are not going to the services before Shabbat or Passover seders. My happiest memories will be playing a game of pool, creating a painting to decorate the café, watching sports and Saturday morning “Schmooze and Schmere.” A game of pool is easily the second best study break activity there is — a good comic book will always hold that trophy. Most of all, the number of times I laughed and smiled is what made me the happiest. Hillel made me smile over the past two years more than any other place at Pitt. The significance I place on what makes me smile encourages me to explore how connecting to Judaism will further this new found source of happiness.
Hillel is where I reconnected to Judaism. Attending Shabbat dinners and the like helped tremendously as a starting point, but they were not the driving forces that brought me back to my Jewish heritage. It was the people. The striking commonality with both students and staff made me feel comfortable. The shared values in community, performing mitzvot, tikkun olam and taking personal responsibility are what made me care about Judaism again. This gave me the desire to revisit the religious side of Judaism.
I am excited by what I have seen so far. Occasionally, I have been asked to complete the minyan for afternoon services, and I gladly accept. Although they go far too fast for me, I still enjoy following along in English and the prayer atmosphere. I look forward to learning Hebrew so that I can have a deeper, more direct connection to the Torah as I attend services on a Saturday morning.
So do I now keep kosher, wear a yarmulke, and observe Shabbat? Well, I spent a few weeks trying to keep kosher, and while the willpower to put in that much effort into a eating habit was just not there yet, I am not ruling it out for the future. The few hours I spend during services vigorously scratching my head, not to mention the amount of times I have to bend down and pick it up after it falls to the ground, means a yarmulke probably is not going to happen. Observing Shabbat will gradually happen — though I will always use my phone and lights, the idea of taking it easy for an extended period of time during daylight hours sounds fantastic.
So where do I find Judaism? I find Judaism in friendship. I find it in shared values, in happiness, my support of Israel, in motivation to do good and in caring for others. I understand this is not conventional. I understand most people do not look at Judaism this way. But for me this is what did it. Being exposed to new aspects of Judaism, and more importantly, interacting with like-minded Jews made all of the difference in my decision to reconnect with Judaism. The friends I made through Hillel encouraged a movement within myself that I did not imagine ever happening. I am glad Judaism is back in my life.
(Sam Hantverk recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. His essay first appeared in New Voices, an online magazine published by and for Jewish college students, and is reprinted here with the permission of New Voices.)