As told to Rachel Bernstein, writer for the Hillel International Writer's Program.
“Even though my dad is Catholic and my mom is Jewish, my parents raised me to be only Jewish. But my dad always supported me by attending my Hebrew School events, engaging with our Jewish community, and embracing the differences between our religions. I, too, would embrace his traditions. We always supported each other in pursuit of our respective religions.
“I didn't go to your typical Jewish grade school like many people in my Hebrew school. It made me an outsider, and, because of that, I didn't necessarily love being Jewish. Our family’s synagogue also wasn't welcoming of the fact that my dad was Catholic. I wasn't able to be Bat Mitzvah-ed in my own synagogue. They wouldn't let me read from the Torah, because I was a girl. And they wouldn't let my father or my father's side of the family come and bless me.
“So we decided to have my Bat Mitzvah in a hotel ballroom. I trained for my Bat Mitzvah by Skypeing with a rabbi in Philadelphia. Despite everything, it was a wonderful experience because my whole family learned a little Hebrew, even though they weren't Jewish. And they did that so they could help me and participate with me. That was awesome. But following my Bat Mitzvah, we stopped going to Shabbat services. Then when I graduated from Hebrew school, we stopped with Jewish traditions altogether.
“Since then, I always knew that I wanted to build a Jewish community for myself once I got to college, but I never knew how I was going to make that happen. I had heard from a close family friend that Hillel had always provided a safe place on her college campus and she recommended I get involved with USC’s Hillel. So, I slowly integrated myself into the organization, first through Challah for Hunger. I started attending all the bakes. Eventually, I was asked to join the board, and I started helping plan the events. Even though I felt a little bit of community, I still didn’t feel comfortable enough to attend Shabbat dinners by myself.
“But the beauty of Hillel is that everyone is welcome, no matter how “Jewish” they feel. After Challah for Hunger, I went on Birthright, completed the Jewish Learning Fellowship, was a Campus Engagement Intern, and co-chaired FreshFest. Through my experiences, I realized that Judaism was a lot more relatable than what I learned in Hebrew school. In general, I started to feel more proud and more excited to be Jewish.
“Then, I had the opportunity to apply for USC Hillel Student President. I had felt so undeniably welcome throughout my entire USC Hillel experience; there was no chance that I wouldn't apply. Now, as President, diversifying inclusion within Hillel is a driving force for me and my co-president, Jacob Miller. Inclusion within Hillel should constantly be challenged: we can always do more to provide a safe and welcoming space for Jewish students. We all have different relationships with our own Jewish-ness, and those differences should always be grounds for celebration and community, as opposed to exclusion.
“I never expected to get as involved as I am now. Nonetheless, I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. The growth I’ve experienced inspires me to work hard as President. When a community has given so much to you, it's impossible not to want to give back. Hillel has been so influential in my time at USC as well as in developing my identity as a Jewish woman. I only hope that other students who experienced similar exclusions within their Jewish community find an empowering environment like the one we have at USC Hillel.” — Erica Fusté, Co-President of USC Hillel