Jewish life had always been a part of my high school experience in Los Angeles. I taught at Hebrew School on Sundays, went to post-confirmation classes on Mondays, and spent time during the week with my friends from synagogue at youth group events or just in general. I attended many NFTY events regionally and attended two of the national conventions, and knew that keeping my identity would be important as I moved off to college.
Looking at Penn, I was thrilled with the vibrant Hillel community available. Where many other schools had the population (or interest) to support just one group, Penn had both the quantity and quality of students to be able to support various different communities, interests, and passions relating to all the many different ways a Jewish identity is expressed. Hillel did have something for everyone, Israel focused, Hebrew conversation, Torah study, and even acapella groups in addition to the various different Friday night options. And of course, I don’t want to leave out the dining hall!
As a freshman, I was fortunate to find a great group of friends in Kesher, which has now morphed back into RJC, the Reform Jewish Community. Just as my great friends 9-12 were from my temple, so many of my great friendships during Penn were formed in Kesher. I quickly found a niche in duties as social chair, planning monthly onegs as well supporting the event planning of many other happenings. Friday evenings were spent with an hour of reflection, a great calm in the often busy and harried life of a Penn student, and holidays were spent comparing family traditions and celebrating the time of year. I was able to travel to Israel via Taglit-Birthright Israel, host a seder thanks to JRP, and even was able to give a 60 second thought about Easter all in addition to my Kesher life. I had so many great experiences all because of Hillel as an undergraduate.
I now work as an Admissions Officer for Penn, and search to balance the connections I have made as a student with the new roles I have as a staff member. It’s a change to now be colleagues with so many wonderful staff members who supported me as a student, and to be a supportive staff member for the next generation of Quakers.
Five years after my first Shabbat service during NSO, I am fortunate to remain connected to the Jewish Community at Penn. While I may be physically present in Steinhardt Hall less and less, experiences and relationships formed at Penn Hillel continue to be an integral takeaway from my time as an undergraduate. I continue to find solace in attending a Shabbat for a yarhtzeit (anniversary of a loved one’s passing), meaning in being able to lift the Torah during High Holy Day services (I think my 6’5” height allows me to keep the gig), and warmth in the open doors that Hillel continues to provide to all those who come to connect, learn, and explore.
In Shel Silverstein’s classic “The Giving Tree”, as the young boy grows up the tree continues to be a helpful resource and friend for life, first as branches to play then wood to construct a house then a stump on which to rest. Penn Hillel similarly continues to offer ways to connect with my Jewish identity as a freshman, to an upperclassman, and now as a staff member. I am grateful for all that the greater Hillel community has provided me in the past, continues to provide me now, and will for the years to come.
Jayson Weingarten is originally from Los Angeles, CA and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Economics and Consumer Psychology. He currently serves as a University of Pennsylvania Admissions Counselor in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
Cross-posted from the Penn Hillel blog