Last weekend I visited the University of Kansas, my home for the past four years of college. The 50-mile stretch of road from the airport southwest to Lawrence cuts through an endless flat expanse of wheat fields and cornrows that sway in the breeze and smell of rain.
Driving through the prairie, I thought a great deal about my experience at KU Hillel, the nature of our community, and I want to share this with you.
What I reflect on the type of student who attends KU Hillel, the truth, I realize, is that there is no one type. There is no “right” way to express yourself or your Judaism. There is just your path, with friends and Hillel staff to be your companions on the journey.
KU Hillel is intentional about not being intentional. It is a place that allows students opportunities to experiment and make the space whatever they need. KU Hillel is what you make of it, and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to make something of my own there.
One the first things I learned about Hillel is that I could go there whenever I wanted, and Hillel would provide good times, good food and good friends. Even when no staff were present, I requested a key and code so that I could use the space for accounting study groups or even a quiet place off campus for our pro-Israel group, Jayhawks for Israel, to meet.
In my four years at KU Hillel, I participated in a wide variety of events, opportunities and speakers. Before matriculating to college, I played basketball for my Jewish day school, the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy. For as long as I could remember, I imagined my basketball career would come to a dead stop in college.
Fortunately, I was wrong. A good friend at University of Maryland reached out to me about the National Hillel Basketball Tournament hosted annually by Maryland Hillel. If you’ve never heard of it, the NHBT is a tournament/Shabbaton in which students from all over the United States can play basketball and represent their Hillel in College Park.
I jumped at the opportunity and formed a girls and boys team to represent Kansas and KU Hillel subsidized most of our travel and playing expenses. Through KU Hillel I could play in the tournament for three years and was able to continue playing basketball in college, making college feel more like home.
Hillel also provided me the opportunity to go to Israel twice, on Birthright Israel and through the Israel Leadership Mission (ILM), practically free of charge to me. ILM was an eye-opening trip spent learning in and volunteering for the city of Ramla, Kansas City’s sister city in Israel.
But my KU Hillel experience wasn’t all business. I danced the night away at many Hillel formals, met my boyfriend, Raphi, at Shabbat Brunch, and made lifelong Jewish friends while attending weekly leadership seminars.
I also developed my spiritual side by coordinating Shabbat Around KU, a special event in which 20+ different Shabbat dinners are held across campus.
At KU Hillel, you can be involved in whatever you want; the opportunities and options are as limitless as the prairie itself.
You know what else I learned? One of those options is also giving yourself permission to step back and participate instead of leading. My final semester I did just that, empowering other students to develop their own ideas and programs. This allowed me to see things from a different perspective and helped me build new relationships.
As I write this, I’m starting my career as full-time Jewish professional in Washington, D.C. But I know that where I may venture in my life, KU Hillel will always be with me on the journey.
Even if you don’t follow in my footsteps and attend the University of Kansas, I hope that you find a community on campus like I was lucky to find. I’m confident that Hillel will be that place for you.
Sarah Herman is a 2017 graduate of the University of Kansas.