In the company of strangers
What have I gotten myself into? This is what I asked myself as I boarded a flight to Madrid last semester. I had never been to Europe. I had not used my Spanish in four years. And I had never had to build a new home for myself.
I landed in Madrid eight hours later, jet-lagged and wary. And yet, I felt determined to step outside my comfort zone during my semester abroad.
My first week in Madrid went by without incident. Within a few days, I made new friends, settled into my apartment and began classes. Before I knew it, Friday had come and I suddenly felt homesick. I yearned for the feeling of being at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Illini Hillel on a Friday evening, surrounded by my peers hugging and chatting away as the singing of the Kiddush washes away the stresses of the past week. How will I find something like this abroad? How will I make this foreign place feel like home?
Immediately, I embarked on a journey to discover this spirit, this ruach abroad, traveling to different European cities each weekend. This journey required persistency and courage—researching the Jewish communities of the cities I traveled to, ensuring I found a Friday night Shabbat experience in each city and going on my own to a new place without knowing a single soul there.
I traveled to new cities and discovered new Jewish communities. I calmed the fluttering in my stomach by recalling how I had handled the experience of walking into my campus Hillel three years earlier, before I had made many friends and become close with the staff. I also remembered my first Hillel International Board of Directors meeting, in which I learned, as student member of the board, to find my voice and share my ideas. These experiences proved to me that Jewish communities—no matter where they are in the world—are inclusive and welcoming for all.
I made my way to a synagogue in the heart of Paris one Friday. Google Maps in-hand, I ascended the stairs, past an imposing array of guards, for the Orthodox service. The service felt unfamiliar, but I found solace in the pluralistic values inherent in all Friday night Shabbat services. I followed the Hebrew prayers, and I read the rabbi’s body language and facial expression when he spoke in French. Other university students began to trickle in, finding friends, feeling at home. My feelings of discomfort began to slowly subside.
After the service, I ventured downstairs to the main lobby that was transformed into a student dinner. Though still thousands of miles away from Champaign, I recognized a familiar sensation. The students around me found their friends and caught up in light conversation after a busy week. The Kiddush began with an occasional interruption of a burst of laughter and conversation. It was the Shabbat spirit, the same spirit that I knew would fall over my own Hillel seven hours later.
I realized this moment was no different than many Shabbat moments I experienced all throughout college at Hillel. If I was in Champaign, I would catch up with good friends, and if I saw a new student at Shabbat, I would go up and introduce myself to him or her. Hillel helped me to find home, belonging and pluralism in the Jewish community. Wherever I may venture in my life, I am connected to this community, and I must always remember this truth—and draw strength from it.
And so, surrounded by strangers speaking a different language and coming from a different background, I took a few tentative steps forward. Then I drew a deep breath.
“Shabbat Shalom, my name is Hannah, and I am a University student from Chicago.”
Hannah Schlacter is a member of the Class of 2017 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a student, she co-founded the Hillel International Student Cabinet and served on the Hillel International Board of Directors.