As I reached the corner of 8th
and H in Washington, DC's Chinatown on the first day of my summer internship, I chuckled. Outside of the Schusterman International Center, on a pole, was Hillel's logo, except with a red background and Chinese characters instead of English. I had no idea what to think of this, but I took a deep breath and entered the building to begin my new job.
Our first session was a sort of orientation, where we met some of the key people we would be working with this summer. We did a couple icebreakers, sipped orange juice, and ate bagels -- not a bad first experience. What struck me most, though, was the amount of time during the session we spent laughing.
When you're a student leader at a campus Hillel, you occasionally hear whispers about the Schusterman International Center. There's mention of this important guy named Wayne Firestone who works there and somehow runs Hillel's global network. Occasionally there's discussion about the ways the "SIC" facilitates Birthright trips or alternative spring breaks. You might even find out that the Schusterman International Center gave your Hillel some sort of financial assistance. What you don't hear is that the people at this mysterious building in Washington, D.C. spend a lot of time laughing.
Through my internship I have been able to connect with the community that is the SIC. Most of the interactions I have occur through my work planning Hillel Institute. Hillel Institute is Hillel's annual training in St. Louis for staff members, student interns, and student leaders. Compared to other DC internships that I've heard about from friends, my internship has been incredibly specific. Hillel Institute is our goal, and most of the projects we are given exist to ensure that event's success. One day my work will center on the student simulations, the next I'll be asked to help with logistical preparations, and to round it off I might spend a few hours typing blessings in Hebrew for our Shabbat information sheet. My work is never the same, but it always is focused on one goal: making the one-week experience of Hillel Institute truly significant for all of its participants.
It is a big job, and it could overwhelm us at times if we allowed it to. That has not yet happened, at least not for me. The primary reason for that is that very few of these tasks have been accomplished on my own, sitting at a desk and thinking about how much stuff I have to do. Certainly I spend some of my time looking at a screen in my cubicle, but almost every task I am assigned includes some amount of conversation with other people in this office. Underneath the discussions of how we can use social media or what havdalah could look like at Hillel Institute, something crazy happens. We form real, live relationships.
Hillel is in the business of fostering relationships. It exists to connect Jews to our collective heritage, but it also exists to connect people to one another. However, the SIC is not just coming up with strategies to create friendships among students. They are fostering their own friendships.
For example, at many other offices in DC, I have heard that employees mostly eat lunch by themselves at their desks. Here, grabbing lunch with a few co-workers is the norm, and there are multiple places in the building where people go just to get to know each other better. Furthermore, they are not just telling other people to connect to Judaism. They are doing what they can to bring Judaism into what they do on a daily basis. Every Friday, the entire office is invited to share snacks with each other so that we can kick off our Shabbatot in a positive way.
I still don't know why exactly that Chinese-themed Hillel flag is waving outside of our office. I feel fairly certain that it is related to the fact that we our located in DC's Chinatown neighborhood. Here's what I do know: on my first day of work, that little flag made me smile as I walked into Hillel, and it set the tone for a summer full of smiles. Our President Wayne Firestone recently said that the Jewish world needs more dancing. I think he's right. It also needs more laughing. Even though the SIC's work is serious in nature and crucial to the future success of the Jewish world, I can proudly say that we are having fun as we do it.
Lex Rofes is a Conference Coordinator Intern with Hillel at the Schusterman International Center in Washington, DC. He is a rising senior at Brown University, student president of Brown RISD Hillel, and serves as a student representative on the Hillel Board of Directors.