Jewish students recounted the story of Passover and celebrated their freedom this past weekend at Hillels worldwide. Hillel professionals and volunteers lovingly prepared thousands of bowls of matzah ball soup and meaningful Seders for students and community members to begin the eight-day holiday.
With the first and second nights of Passover falling on a weekend this year, many students opted to return home to enjoy the Seders with their families, but Hillel provided a welcoming atmosphere for all who remained on campus.
"The term 'home' is relative. Synagogue is home to a lot of people. People make the home - not the location," said Rabbi Mona Alfi, the executive director of Hillel at Davis and Sacramento.
Adam Masser, a 22-year-old University of Oregon graduate who led a majority of the Seder at University of Oregon Hillel, said students appreciated both the social and religious aspects of the Seder.
"(Passover) is all about remembering the Exodus from Egypt," he said. "Here at Hillel, it's also about building a Jewish community, hanging out with other Jews and celebrating our rich cultural heritage."
The Seders also offer a taste of Hillel to students who have not taken advantage of its resources before.
"If Jews do nothing else (religiously), they'll attend a Passover Seder during the year. It's a good point of entry for anybody who's Jewish to connect with other Jews," says Polli Kenn, program director at University of Kansas Hillel.
For many Jews in the former Soviet Union, Passover is also an opportunity for them to reconnect with their Jewish roots. For nine years, Hillel student leaders have led Seders for Jewish communities throughout former Soviet republics as part of the Pesach Project. UJA-Federation of New York provided $50,000 in emergency funding this year so students from 27 Hillel affiliates could bring the successful program to more than 24,000 Jews.
While many campus cafeterias provide some Passover foods, Hillels will also serve kosher-for-Passover lunches and dinners throughout the week so students and faculty can be assured that the food has been prepared under close supervision. Hillel of Memphis has been operating Miriam's Caf at the University of Memphis' Jewish Student Union during Passover for almost a decade.
"This is the only place in town, other than in homes, where people can come and experience a strictly kosher Passover meal," said Emily Bernhardt, the director of Hillel of Memphis. "Our guests are assured that every law has been followed."
The meals also allow students to build on the friendships and conversations they began during the Seders, either this year or in years past.
"It's like a big family," Memphis student Rachel Bernstein Kannady said. "I get to see people I don't usually run into the rest of the year."
And a few Hillels still have special Seders planned during the rest of the holiday, such as Arizona State University Hillel's "Seder in the Desert" later this week.
"Passover is the anniversary of Jews wandering in the desert, so we do a Seder in the desert," Berg said.