I grew up in a non-Jewish neighborhood, surrounded by children who had never heard of “Hebrew school” or “latkes” or the “star of David.” That disconnect between myself and my peers was something that I struggled with as a child and a young adult.
It was not until I came to American University that I made friends who shared my Jewish faith. My freshman year roommate identified as Orthodox, and she taught me a lot about her beliefs and the way that she practiced religion. Although learning from her sparked my interest in my own Jewish identity, I was not yet ready to take the step of getting really involved in Jewish life.
It was not until my second year that I found American University Hillel. A few friends mentioned Taglit-Birthright Israel to me and I immediately thought that experience would be something I could learn a lot from. So last January, I went with more than 30 other AU Students on a trip to Israel that literally changed my life. That trip was the beginning of my Jewish journey and the path to finding my own Jewish identity. I was called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah, in Jerusalem, and felt an overwhelming sense of pride in my religion. I was able to leave notes for my family and friends in the Western Wall that not only touched my heart, but theirs as well. Visiting the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem was an extremely moving experience, because no matter how many times you hear the accounts or see the images, nothing makes you understand life during the Holocaust better than walking into darkness as you enter the museum and staring at the famous pile of shoes.
Upon our return to AU, I began attending Shabbat dinners and more Hillel-sponsored events. I made strong connections to the Hillel staff and to other Jewish students who have played a prominent role in my Jewish journey.
At the end of the last academic year, Jason Benkendorf, AU Hillel’s Executive Director, asked me to sit on the AU Hillel Board of Directors as a student member. I have to admit, I was tempted to say no. I knew that this year I would be studying for the LSAT and applying to Law School; I am a Director in Student Government, and also a Resident Assistant. I already had more than enough on my plate. But, something in my gut told me I had to make time for this opportunity and seize it. Hillel has not only added to my college experience but has guided me along my own path to finding my Jewish identity. Sitting on the Board of Directors is one very small way I can begin to pay back Hillel for the experience it has provided to me.
Samantha Turetsky is a senior at American University and a student member of the American University Hillel Board of Directors.
Pictured: Samantha speaks at the Hillel International Board of Directors Meeting on October 6, 2013 in Washington, DC.