This is the fourth in a series of blog posts by Hillel professionals, sharing why they love what they do.
I came to Penn State Hillel amidst a bit of an identity crisis; I had spent most of my life uncomfortable with Judaism, with prayers I didn’t understand and services that felt cold. As an undergraduate, I entered the Hillel building only when our university began using the facilities for classrooms and sorority recruitment. I graduated and traveled to Israel on a Taglit-Birthright Israel bus two weeks later, and everything changed. I spent the better part of a year living in Tel Aviv and working at the university, and when February rolled around, I returned to the U.S. determined to work in the Jewish community.
During those first weeks at Penn State Hillel, I was continually amazed by our students’ pride and devotion to Judaism, both of which I had just begun to face myself. I came to our Hillel with the goal of bringing Jewish life to populations seldom reached by Hillel, from fraternities and sororities to graduate students. But when it came time to plan for the year, my supervisor helped me identify another, more personal goal: professional and Jewish development.
The first step was becoming a part of “Exploring Your Jewish Self,” a cohort of Hillel professionals led by Beth Cousens, Hillel’s Director for Organizational Learning. Our calls were based on texts and values from Judaism and allowed space for us to question and even disagree with various interpretations. The course proved to be a stepping stone for me, leading me to another program, Yeshiva University’s Certificate in Experiential Jewish Education.
As a member of YU’s Certificate Program, I’ve connected with Jewish professionals from all over the world, each serving a unique population of the community and ranging in age and experience. Over the course of four seminars, we’re putting language and methodology to experiential Jewish education, an essential approach to today’s evolving Jewish community. Through mentorship, cohort support, and a vibrant community of information sharing, I have gained new insight into the work I do at Penn State. I find that my work is more purposeful and intentional, and although I’m unable to pinpoint every detail, I see the changes in major projects. When planning our Student Board’s leadership development retreat, I started at the end, outlining outcomes and goals and working backwards. Penn State Hillel’s Passover Seder is perpetually overcrowded and impersonal; with the skills I’ve learned from YU, I’m restructuring the holiday. Penn State Hillel’s Passover will include a number of Seders, each dedicated to a specific interest or theme, from LGBT to Ask Big Questions, Conservative to Quick.
I feel lucky to work for an organization that encourages growth, both personally and professionally. I’ve come a long way from where I sat a few years ago, glued to the window of a massive tour bus as we passed the lush green of the Galilee and the rolling hills of the Negev. Hillel has given me the tools to translate that growth into my role as Engagement Coordinator.
Kayla Kahn is the Engagement Associate at Penn State Hillel. In April, she will begin a new role as the Development Associate at Columbia/Barnard Hillel.