Once we had our plans and some contacts, we starting actually preparing to go – renting a van, getting food (how does one get a Shabbat’s worth of kosher food in Lexington, KY?), where to sleep, etc. The Hillel adviser told us that the drive would be too long to do all on Friday (assuming we wanted to make it before sundown, which we did) and suggested we stay over somewhere Thursday night. We then had the idea (which was strongly influenced by L.E.W.) to find some other places to stop along the way. So I went online and opened up two windows – one with GoogleMaps and one with Hillel’s website. I then traced our prospective travel route and found the zip codes of different cities along the way and entered them into Hillel’s “College Search”, which returned colleges with some semblance of a Jewish presence within 5 miles of that location. Doing this, I found 6 or 7 colleges of interest along the way – some which had 900 Jews and a Chabad (U. of West Virginia) and some with 35 Jews and not much else (Marshall University). In the end we decided on Dickenson University, for its proximity (2 hours from Penn, meaning we could get there at a reasonable hour) and its sizable Jewish community – 200 Jews and their own Hillel building.
From there, things took their normal route – we found some friends who had mutual friends there, emailed their Hillel and soon we had a Thursday night BBQ planned for Dickinson College.
So that fateful Thursday came around and we finally ended up leaving at ~8:00 PM. From there, we got to Dickinson at 10:00 and made our way over to the Asbell Student Center – their Hillel house. There was an interesting surprise when we got there, as the Chabad rabbi (and some of his kids) from Harrisburg had come in that night as well (for the first time) to run a matza baking event. That definitely made things a little weird, as he didn’t know what we were doing there and we weren’t sure what he was doing there. But the 5 or 10 students who were there were pretty cool and we hit it off with them After an short-lived attempt by the rabbi to get us to watch this silly video about matza baking, we starting making matzas with the Dickenson students. Which was great, because it was a great activity over which we got to speak, get to know each other a bit, have some fun. (Best part: when Amitai made a failed attempt to hit on the Chabad’s rabbi’s shidduch-aged daughter.) Meanwhile, Tal went upstairs to work alone on his final paper, only to be joined by the Chabad rabbi, who tried recruiting some people to learn Tanya with him.
(Which brings me to a side point: when we were trying to figure out what to do at Dickinson, we threw around some ideas – mishmar, kumzits, hanging out, jam session… I guess this leads to what was the purpose of going there? Was it to provide them with some Jewish knowledge, some educational content? I don’t think so. Would that have been nice? Sure. But I think the main goal was just to engage fellow Jewish students in a positive, Jewish experience, and if some shiur wasn’t the best way to do that, we’d forgo a shiur. So we suggested the idea of learning something but quickly nixed that in favor of a simple, chilled BBQ. All of this came to my mind when the option was presented to go learn Tanya upstairs, in the middle of our exciting matza baking. What do I think would have been a better idea? Not to brag, but I’d go for hanging out with us over learning some Tanya – I mean, come on, do regular college kids relate well to obscure and esoteric messages about different layers of the soul, or to eating some wings? So we chose to forgo the content, have only a little guitar playing, and save most of the time for simple bonding, a little Jewish geography, and getting to know each other. And it wasn’t all meaningless conversation – we spoke about Jewish life on our respective campuses, going to Israel, being Jewish on a secular college, among other things. I think that this is the simplest and most genuine way to connect to people, and from there, the connection to a more meaningful and deeper relationship with Judaism is but a natural extension. Of course, that’s a lot harder when you’re not there to continue the relationship but at least the seeds can be planted and the roads built.)
Meanwhile, E.R., the student who pretty much heads their Jewish community, rounded up some more people to come and we started barbecuing outside. That also turned out well, just chilling over some good chicken wings and half-cooked matzas. All in all, we stayed for a good two hours and met over a dozen Jews. They have a pretty impressive little Jewish community there – every Friday night the 10-15 of them cook their own Shabbat meal in Hillel and make their own Shabbat; I felt bad talking about our dining staff who do everything, and I just walk in Friday night and Shabbat is made for me. At the end, we invited them to come visit us at Penn, so we could repay the hospitality and reconnect with them. They seemed willing and they just seemed satisfied with the wonderful time that we shared together. We left, energized for the rest of our journey, armed with a whole bunch of new friends. I think there’s just something beautiful about that 🙂