My parents’ Hillel story is one of love. In a photo of them (clearly from the 90s), my dad’s arm disappears around my mom’s back while she nestles against his chest, a good head and a half shorter than he is. Both have huge grins on their faces; their happiness was in part because of the Orange County Hillel. I had heard about how amazing Hillel was my entire life; I knew their story by heart.
Even though both my parents were born and raised in Southern California, they had two unique experiences with Jewish communities. My mom grew up in an area with a large Jewish population; my dad took a bus to Hebrew school with only a handful of other Jewish students. Despite their different environments, both found a home at the Orange County Hillel. My dad often ran around UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton to work on Hillel projects. My mom sat at the organization’s campus table welcoming new Jewish students or shook hands at conferences as the Hillel representative. After becoming friends and working on several projects together, they started dating. Their commitment to Hillel and their relationship was a testament to the importance of Judaism in their lives.
Decades later, Hillel was still a powerful presence in our household. Their Hillel friends were a staple of my childhood. They came to my baby naming and my Bat Mitzvah. They met us at the deli by our house for dinner. Hillel gave my parents a community that has lasted a lifetime. That’s why they would always say, “Rachel, you need to join Hillel!”
But I didn’t know where Hillel fit into my life. My parents fell in love at Hillel, but that wasn’t my focus. Of course I hoped that finding the person who would call me his eshet chayil – his woman of valor – was in the cards—someday. But as I embarked on my college years, I wanted to spend time on campus taking advantage of new, exciting experiences. Perfect love stories and Judaism could wait.
Besides, at this point in my life, I considered myself to be a sort of black belt in amateur Judaism. I had spent six years at Jewish day school and had learned enough of Talmud to debate Hillel and Shammai. I had a minyan of Jewish friends and knew which traditions I wanted to continue. College was the place to learn and make friends who were different from me. After all, I was at USC, the school that played Harvard in movies, even more than Harvard! USC was a glamorous outfit ready for a night on the town while Hillel was like an old sweater: too comfortable.
To appease my parents, I would pop by the Hillel building during my first semester. I attended one Shabbat. My “gift of gab” and general gregariousness helped me have fun with other students and staff. Inwardly, though, I was an introvert. It scared me to meet new people at Hillel, even if they felt familiar. So, I kept my distance.
Then, in the first week of March 2020, I received an email that the campus was switching over to remote learning. My time on campus became limited. My college friends all moved back home, and then it was just me, my sister, my parents, and the cat.
The stories of my parents’ impeccable time in college loomed over my head. I knew this isolation wouldn’t be brief. Campus experiences were moved online or canceled. But the Hillel community was still active—thriving, even. Suddenly, Hillel seemed like my best option for community and connection.
At the kitchen table underneath my parents’ ketubah, I clicked “submit” at the end of the Campus Engagement Internship application. During the interview, I told the story of my parents’ meeting at Hillel, thinking it would give me a leg up. While I waited for the decision, I got nervous. Would they even want me? Who was I in Hillel without my parents’ story?
When I got the acceptance, I was relieved and excited. Being an engagement intern meant helping students who felt like me: scared to cross the threshold of Hillel, even though you were “supposed” to be there. In my new role, connecting with people felt honest. Meeting the new students and getting to know people in my class was thrilling. I finally knew how I fit in. I was that smiling face for Hillel students, just like my mom and dad, but in my own way.
We’re back on campus now, and Hillel feels more important to me than ever. At a recent USC Hillel family weekend event, I got to introduce my parents to the USC Hillel staff. “Why don’t you tell them how you met?” I asked. They smiled and I stood in awe of how Hillel changed their lives forever — and how now, it’s changing mine.