Last Thursday was the orientation barbecue at Johns Hopkins Hillel. Each year, this is an event everyone anticipates with excitement. The freshmen move in, and at the BBQ, they are still in shock about leaving home for the first time. The sophomores are excited to begin the year savvier than they were the year before. The juniors and seniors are looking for free food.
I’m beginning my senior year, so this was my fourth barbecue. I have seen how each year the character of the freshman class begins to shape the environment almost immediately. Sometimes, the students begin to bond with each other right away. Other times, the freshmen are shy and stay with their parents for much of the evening. It is certain, though, that each class shapes the Hillel environment with its own unique personalities and talents.
The size of Hopkins Hillel also allows each class — and really each student — to shine. It’s a small Hillel, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Every student who wants to take an active part in shaping his or her Jewish experience on campus has the opportunity to do so. But at the same time, we really can feel like a community. We may pray in separate Orthodox, Conservative and Reform services on Friday nights, but we all make Kiddush together and eat Shabbat dinner as one.
I think this is something special about Hopkins Hillel. My friend, Ellie, wrote for this column some months ago, and she talked about how meaningful it was for her, a Reform student not necessarily looking for a strong Hillel, to learn from Jews of all walks of life. I come from an Orthodox background, but I feel exactly the same way. I have learned so much from the Reform and Conservative communities about what it means to feel Jewish and explore my individual Jewish identity, as opposed to just observing halacha. I had always just taken my Jewish identity for granted, since I had attended Jewish school almost my entire life. At Hopkins, I have had the opportunity to allow myself to ask big questions, as Hillels across the country recommend. I have sat with culturally Jewish students and strictly observant students, with rabbis of all denominations and with the (Jewish) president of Johns Hopkins and had conversations about what Judaism means in general and what it means to each of us. All of these conversations have taught me how to be a more well-rounded and self-aware Jew. So many students have shared similar experiences. We have such a sense of camaraderie as a Jewish community, and I’d like to express hakarat ha’tov to all of my peers for their willingness not only to accept differences within the Jewish community, but also to embrace them.
Some years, the freshmen come to the welcome barbecue and want to sit together in a big group. Other years they want to mingle and meet upperclassmen. Each year is different. I am excited to see how these individual Jewish identities mesh with each other and with the upperclassmen to create this year’s unique tapestry of Hopkins Hillel.
Caren Lewis is a senior at Johns Hopkins University.