Last August, I had the privilege of heading to St. Louis for Hillel Institute, the annual national leadership conference for engaged Hillel students and professionals. Those five days were enormously fulfilling, but perhaps most impactful was the program’s Shabbat: from meeting and speaking with dozens of passionate students from across the country, to learning about how spirituality can manifest itself in science-fiction writing, all within just twenty-five short hours, the experience was fundamentally transformative. It was so worthwhile, in fact, that I decided to try to port it to my own campus. A few weeks ago, I’m proud to say we achieved just that, and the event that resulted, the 2013 Northeast Shabbaton, was fantastic.
The entire process proved itself totally worth the immense effort as people began arriving on Friday afternoon. Seeing so many enthusiastic students walk through the doors of Brown RISD Hillel, seamlessly settle into our makeshift community, and engage with one another, was a fantastic start, only furthered by the incredible conversations and networking that began almost instantly. The fundamental purpose of the Shabbaton was to bring the northeast-based college-age Jewish community together, and it was very gratifying to see the event successfully working its magic.
To say the crowd was diverse would be an understatement. Over the weekend of April 5th and 6th, we hosted dozens of students from twelve schools in the northeast, not to mention the numerous Brown and RISD students who participated in the festivities as well. The experience kicked off with Shabbat services and dinner, followed by a fantastic oneg (informal Shabbat gathering). Following Saturday morning prayer services and lunch, we had the opportunity to split into different “shabboptions” to explore different facets of Judaism. The choices varied from text studies to Mapping Israel with Candy, from Jewish-themed Yoga to niggunim (Jewish vocal song). Luckily, we were privy to some fantastic weather, and later in the day many opted to spend time outside on a warm early-spring day. As we wrapped up with the third meal and Havdalah, we realized what a true community of friends we’d become and how meaningful the weekend had been.
The college-aged Jewish community is quite vast yet largely disparate, separated by campus borders even when close together. Many of us are looking for new and different means of engaging with our Judaism, and get-togethers like the Northeast Shabbaton are fantastic ways for us to meet, share ideas and stories, and connect on a larger and wider scale. I truly hope that more shabbatonim geared at our age group will start popping up; they’re largely fulfilling experiences.
There was one particular happenstance that, for me, brought the Shabbaton full-circle. First, a bit of context: on Shabbat afternoon of Hillel Institute in Saint Louis, I was sitting and eating lunch when, seemingly out of nowhere, a group began nigguning and dancing through the dining hall. I knew only one of them, a friend from Brown, and when he saw me, he grabbed the sandwich from my hand, put it down, stood me up, and brought me over to partake. It was one of the most fulfilling, spontaneous experiences I’d ever had—the utter passion that each singer/dancer exuded was contagious, so full of life and full of ruach (spirit) — and the niggun we sang will stick with me forever. As I sat down to sing on Saturday afternoon at the Northeast Shabbaton, that same friend began to sing that same niggun, and I was suddenly taken back to the fundamental inspiration for bringing everyone together: to share that oh-so-contagious and passionate ruach. In so many ways, it was pure harmony.
Ian Callender is a rising junior at Brown University majoring in Architectural Studies. He is currently Brown RISD Hillel's Intercollegiate Coordinator and works across campus borders to bring different schools' Jewish communities together with both travel-based programming and ideative collaboration.