Let me tell you a story that happened to me this past week.
It was the day before school officially started, around 7:00 PM. Dinner was winding down in the kosher dining hall in Hillel at Penn; they had stopped serving food at around 6:30 but there were still a bunch of people sitting around and eating, talking, hanging out. I was there supervising the food (mashing) and was about to lock up the kitchen to go pray when I saw a girl, who I didn’t recognize, walk into the dining hall. She looked around, and upon seeing that they weren’t serving food and seemed to be closed, left the dining hall. Sure, I could’ve gone on with what I was doing, but I stopped and thought for one second – “Hey, maybe I should go over and talk to that girl? Maybe she’s looking for something?” So, making a quick decision, I dropped everything and I ran after her, only to see her with her hand on the door, about to leave. Quickly I called out to her, “Excuse me – do you need something? Do you want some help?” She turned around, surprised, and responded that yes, she was looking for something. After introducing myself to her, I asked her what brought her to Hillel. She told me that, actually, she just found out that she’s Jewish and she came here to find out more.
Yep, apparently her mother was doing genealogical research and found that when her family came to America from Europe before WWII, their entry visas to Ellis Island stated their religion as Jewish. Now for whatever reason, and I suspect it to be fear of persecution or abandonment of their past, no one seemed to know that they were Jewish. Thus, the family grew up like normal, WASP-y Americans, nonJews – until now. So this girl just found out for the first time in her life that she’s Jewish and came to the only Jewish place she knew to find out what that meant.
Wow! I mean, how do you respond to something like that! I was blown away by this story, and by the enthusiasm that she had for this new world she had stumbled upon. First I told her how exciting this was, and she seemed to agree with my sentiments. Then we started talking- about Shabbat, rabbis, different denominations, religiosity – and remember, this was her first time hearing about any of this. When said she might look some of it up on Wikipedia so she wouldn’t be so overwhelmed, I told her that finding it out for herself by meeting and talking to people was really the truest and best way of finding out what being Jewish is all about. She seemed really excited about that strategy and, while still insisting on doing some internet research, she said she was definitely excited to experience it on her own. I invited her for Shabbat dinner, while warning it that it might be a little overwhelming, but she didn’t seem to mind, as she had been to Hillel dining before with some of her Jewish friends (she clearly didn’t know how many people would be there that Friday night). When I told her about Shabbat and its Friday night services and dinner, she asked me whether it was going to be happening this week. I was thinking of telling her that yes, Shabbat will be happening every week for all of eternity – but instead told her that indeed it would be, and the general times. By now, we had been talking for almost half an hour and we both had to go. After making sure we remembered each others names to friend each other on Facebook, we parted ways and she finally left the building, but this time with a packet of all the Hillel programs and the comfort of her first friend as a Jew.
As I ran back to everything I had to do (locked the kitchen and davened mincha barely in time), I couldn’t stop thinking about that encounter and how unbelievably incredible it was. Later that night and the following few days I told this story to around 50 people. One comment that I got a few times was ‘Wow, these stories only happen to you’, or ‘9 times out of 10 these people always find you’. But while that may be true, it doesn’t have to be. This story happened to me because when I saw a new face in Hillel, who looked like she needed some help, instead of attending to the many thing I had to do, I went over and said ‘hello’. And that’s really how it started, a simple conversation, between two simple people, and it ended up being a life-changing, heart-to-heart discussion – at least for me. And for her – imagine her first experience ‘as a Jew’, and the difference between walking out of the Hillel building empty handed and coming out knowing someone and having an informative, meaningful, friendly and welcoming encounter with a fellow Jew. As good as Hillel is, it’s only a building and it’s impact can only be as great as the students who occupy its space. And it’s so easy – that’s the best part! She also asked me whether I worked in Hillel, or was in some position, and I told her that I was just a regular student, just like her, just a simple Jew. And that was also a powerful message – firstly for her, that it doesn’t have to be someone from an organization or a paid ‘director of engagement’ who says ‘hello’ to her but even a simple student can do that, and cares enough to do that. Secondly, for everyone else, that you don’t have to be a leader or in charge of some social committee in order to welcome someone in and say hello to someone new. Sure it’s a little scary at first, but the more you do it the easier it gets and the more you realize that it was never so scary in the first place. And trust me, you’ll find that the more attune you are to this, and the more aware you are of meeting new people and reaching out to people in need of a friend, information or just a listening ear, the more these kinds of things will happen to you. You never know what can happen from there..