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.
“Welcome the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” This well-known Jewish teaching epitomized my experience with Hillel. Why did I feel initially like a stranger? It was not my Jewish status; I was raised with a strong Conservative Jewish upbringing. Maybe in some sense, though, it was, since I came from Lincoln, Neb., where there is not a large Jewish presence. I was afraid of the culture shock and transition.
Between my becoming a bar mitzvah in 2000, up until my enrollment in graduate school at Northwestern University in 2009, fitting in was a significant challenge for me. I did not hold common ground with my Hebrew school classmates and likewise did not feel a connection with the older members of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Lincoln. Like many other young people, I was suffering from bar mitzvah burnout. But I also have Asperger syndrome and the social aloofness sometimes associated with it, another barrier to connecting with my fellow Jews.
I began to rediscover the joy of Jewish services and a Jewish community during my undergraduate years, but the barriers tumbled once I became a graduate student.
The Hillel building at Northwestern was one of the first places that I visited on campus after starting graduate school there in 2009. The first activity I participated in there was the High Holiday services, and although it felt different being away from home and my family, the company of other new students and potential new friends made me feel at home. My experiences made me realize I could etch my name on the community and fit in.
During my first two years at Northwestern, most of my Hillel events were Shabbat services. I did attend other events such as ShireiNU (NU Hillel’s a cappella group), Challah For Hunger and NUJOT (the graduate student group). Although each of these fell under the Hillel umbrella, the social circles were partially disjointed. Yet, I fit in to each one in its own right in my own fashion and maybe helped others to fit in elsewhere. At each event I attended, I attempted to make a new social connection.
On the encouragement of NU Hillel, I went on a Birthright Israel trip in the summer of 2011. After I returned, NU Hillel evolved from a semiregular part of my social life to nearly the epicenter. Several of my best friends (including both undergraduate and graduate students at the time) I met at NU Hillel in 2011, and my engagement in Hillel events helped me to break out of my Aspie shell. I could feel a sense of community that didn’t discriminate against others because of their background or human conditions.
The epitome of fitting in for me was Shabbat evenings. The spirited singing during services extended to my musical calling of pages, which other “Conservices” members told me was something that they looked forward to each week. After services, dinner was a great chance to hang out with friends and acquaintances who I would see only at Hillel. In addition to great food, the unexpected conversations, spontaneous game nights and pure relaxation made me feel like part of the community. Furthermore, it was a chance to unburden myself and let go of the week.
NU Hillel was truly a place where I was able to fit in, despite being a graduate student with Asperger syndrome. The people I met there didn’t discriminate against my background, and I felt very much at home. As a graduate student, it is certainly possible to fit in to circles outside of your lab and department, and even for graduate students, Hillel has a lot to offer.
Noah Weiss received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in the summer of 2015.