Huddled in a dimly lit hospital waiting room in 2010, we sat quietly. My dad finally broke the silence to my sister and I with these five words: “Mommy went to people heaven.” At 11 years old, I learned I would never see my mom again.
By the time I was 7, I was consumed with doubt and worry over my mom’s health, often wondering why she seemed so different to my young eyes. Meanwhile, my dad tried to keep some level of normalcy in our day to day lives. Despite his efforts, going to Hebrew school and finding a synagogue fell to the back burner.
Growing up, my mom strongly advocated for my sister and I to have a Jewish upbringing. She made sure we went to ‘tot Shabbat’ on Friday nights and that we had a home-cooked dinner every holiday. Whether brisket for Rosh Hashanah or matzah ball soup for Passover, her cooking filled our table, our stomachs and our hearts.
It was important to her that I experience a special Jewish milestone. After speaking to my dad and finding a new synagogue, I immediately started to work toward becoming a bat mitzvah. I thought this would be a way to make my mom proud. To honor her during the candle lighting ceremony, my family and I lit the last candle in her memory. As the candle flickered, I could feel my mom’s love shining down on me.
Moving to the University of Delaware campus last year was one of the hardest milestones I had to go through without the support of my mom. I continually found myself wishing I could give her a call – the same way the girls around me were updating their moms on their walks to and from classes.
When my dad came to visit, he stressed the importance of joining the Jewish community on campus. Picking me up at my dorm, we went to brunch at Hillel for Parents and Family Weekend. Little did I know, this would serve as the catalyst for my current Jewish journey.
Since my first Shabbat at Hillel, the people there made me feel welcome and at home –
whether it was the seniors taking me under their wing and introducing me to others, or student leaders insisting I sit at their table. When walking through the doors, I was instantly greeted by strangers and introduced to people who I now call friends. It became a safe place and a support system.
When I first started coming to Hillel, I thought about my bat mitzvah many times, wondering if my mom would be proud that her daughter was part of the change within the Hillel community. I started to think about this a lot. Every opportunity and Jewish encounter in college has helped me feel connected to my mom, which is something I have struggled with for so long.
Whether designing flyers after class for my Hillel marketing team internship or playing Jewish geography at Birthright Israel orientations, the Jewish identity I am building through these experiences will have a lasting impact. Many doors have opened for me at Hillel, allowing me to follow my passions. I’ve even started to seek out other opportunities in the Jewish community through the local JCC, and I've applied to be a counselor at Camp Simcha, a summer experience for children with cancer.
The staff at Hillel have made a tremendous effort in creating a community of mentors for students to trust. On the Hillel marketing team, I have developed a close relationship with my supervisor, Rachel. With Rachel as my guide, I have developed a portfolio and passion for graphic design and marketing. Her door is always open for me, whether she's giving me professional advice or just talking to me about my day. She's a female role model who I look up to and count on – something that had been missing from my life for a long time.
As my college career has progressed, I’ve toyed with ideas that would help me honor my mom and raise awareness about her disease, frontotemporal degeneration. I was waiting for the right place and the right people to partner with to give her a special honor. As I became closer with the Hillel staff and the Jewish community, I knew I’d found that place and those people.
This semester, we are planning an educational Shabbat in my mother’s honor. Each Hillel staff member has made this Shabbat their personal mission. The University of Delaware Hillel is more than a building – it's a family and a community that I couldn’t be more grateful to be a part of.
It’s funny how one place can change your life, how it can help you find yourself, help you overcome something you’ve struggled with or just make you smile. Hillel helps me to carry on the ripples of Judaism that my mother left behind. If one place was going to change my life, I'm glad that it was Hillel.
Tia Scheff is a student at the University of Delaware.