This piece was originally published in the Fall 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.
My favorite Hebrew word is kehilah, which means community. Growing up in Allentown, Pa., I had always been involved in the Jewish community there. I met my best friends in Pre-K at the Jewish Community Center, and together we continued on through Hebrew school, high school and BBYO, a pluralistic Jewish youth group that works to provide more Jewish teens with more meaningful experiences.
I held leadership positions in my local BBYO chapter, worked as a camp counselor at the local JCC camp, assisted with teaching and held administrative positions in my Hebrew school. My parents served as both lay leaders and professionals in our community. I watched and learned as my mother served as sisterhood president, temple president, JCC camp director and JCC interim executive director, while my father served on the boards and many committees of our JCC, temple and men’s club.
The Jewish community in Allentown was my home. Leaving that home for college was terrifying. New students at every university are told that they are about to embark on a journey through the best four years of their life. But no one tells them how difficult and scary the beginning of that journey can be.
I experienced that difficult transition during my first few weeks on Penn State’s enormous campus. I got lost on my first day and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people — about 50,000 different faces, including 40,000 undergraduates.
I knew I wanted to get involved with Hillel no matter where I went to school, because I knew the Jewish community would be my new home. However, I was so overwhelmed when I got to Penn State that my roommate had to drag me to my first Penn State Hillel event during Welcome Week.
Immediately, I was welcomed by both staff and students. I remember that we launched into an intense game of Jewish geography and found how many people we knew in common. I met tons of new Jewish freshman students and, over time, found my best friends. I began attending Shabbat dinner every week and felt each time like I was sitting down with family. The Hillel staff especially made every effort to get to know me and help me through my transition.
My transition continues, and it is still difficult at times. When I wake up in the morning with a stuffy nose, I miss my mom. After a long week of studying, I miss sleeping in my bed at home and cuddling with my dog, a poodle-mix named Lucky.
But Penn State Hillel is always there when those feelings creep up on me. I am grateful that I am able to stop in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center whenever I want and see my family away from home. When I wake up sick, Hillel’s soup delivery program comes to the rescue. By going online to pennstatehillel.org, I can order homemade chicken noodle soup cooked by students and have it delivered to my room by those same students. Hillel truly is a kehilah at Penn State.
Dorothy was right when she said that there is no place like home, but Penn State Hillel has made University Park sure feel like a second home to me.
Sarah Holtz is a freshman at Pennsylvania State University.