This piece was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Hillel College Guide Magazine. Read the full issue and sign up for your FREE copy of the next issue at hillel.org/magazine.
I love my school, a small Jesuit campus in the heart of San Francisco with a strong commitment to social justice and a diverse student population. When people ask why I chose the University of San Francisco, the answer is soccer. I’ve played since the age of 5, and it was my dream to play at the college level. As an incoming freshman from San Diego, I honestly didn’t give too much thought to what Jewish life was like on campus. I was more focused on where I could develop my skills as a player, and having the opportunity to compete in Division I soccer. USF proved to be an exciting place to play and study, but by my sophomore year I felt like something was missing. I loved being in a big new city where I could explore myself and new ideas. But with my practice and game schedule, I only practiced Judaism when I went home for breaks.
It was perfect timing when a friend suggested I apply for Birthright Israel. A fellow USF student, she had gone with our local Hillel the previous year and it had changed her life. We talked about the absence of Shabbat dinners in the dorms, and how we were both looking for something that could connect us spiritually, looking for something or someone to bring Judaism back to the center of our lives. It seemed like Birthright Israel could be that missing piece, and since I love to travel, signing up seemed like a great idea. I had no idea at the time how monumental this trip would be.
Birthright Israel didn’t just connect me to Israel and a global Jewish peoplehood, it connected me to a local Jewish community, to Hillel. I met new friends and mentors who would be with me back at home in San Francisco, friends I could do Jewish things with long beyond the trip of 10 days. The relationships I forged in Israel were deeper than any I had made at college so far. When we returned to the West Coast, I was moved by the Hillel trip leaders when they reached out and encouraged me to apply for an internship with my Hillel. I leaped at the opportunity.
SF Hillel is a multi-campus Hillel — it is based at San Francisco State University and is interested in better serving students at my campus. I became the first USF Peer Network Engagement Intern (PNEI) for my school, reaching out and connecting my peers to each other and facilitating Jewish experiences at our school.
The past six months have been busy! We’ve met many Jews who are looking for friends and community like me, launched a Jewish student organization on my campus, sold hamentaschen on the quad, brought Jewish holiday celebrations to the University Ministry and hosted on-campus Shabbat dinners.
Hillel not only empowered me as a Jewish individual and leader, it’s connected me to so many exciting opportunities. My PNEI supervisor is always pushing me to think about what my next step is. I’ve applied for the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, a summer experience for Jews from around the world, and will be traveling to Berlin in August to play for the U.S. Maccabi soccer team. At SF Hillel, I’ve found an extended Jewish family who has launched me on my adult Jewish journey. I’m so lucky to have found them, and to be able to do that for others on my campus.
Sydnie Astar Telson is a junior advertising major and soccer player at the University of San Francisco.