Finding a Home for My Jewish and Korean Identities: Jake’s Story



May 5, 2023

Author is wearing a red tank top that says Kansas in Hebrew and underneath is written KU Hillel. Author is giving two thumbs up.

My story really begins at camp. I went to Herzl Camp for the first time when I was eight years old and cried every day for a week until I went home. A few years later, the camp director, who had never given up on me, convinced my parents and me that it was time to try again. For the last ten years, every summer, I go to camp to learn more about myself, my Korean and Jewish identities, and what I need to grow as a person and a leader.

Camp showed me how important it is to have a strong community in my life, so that was my first priority when selecting a college. I fell in love with the University of Kansas (KU) and was so excited to be a Jayhawk and to find my people at KU. 

Building my community wasn’t as easy as I expected, and I felt lost at first. But one day, I took a walk through campus wearing my Star of David necklace and ended up in front of a table with a Hillel sign. The rabbi standing at the table called me over and started chatting with me about how things were going in my first semester. I got so caught up in our conversation that I was late for class for the first time. He invited me to stop by Hillel later that afternoon for snacks and a space to study. I had never heard of Hillel before and had to call my mom to find out where exactly I had been invited. 

Suzy Sostrin, KU Hillel’s Executive Director, was making coffee when I walked into KU Hillel for the first time. She immediately came over to meet me and then introduced me to the other students who were hanging out at Hillel. From that first interaction with a Hillel professional, I felt like I was enough. The feeling of not being Jewish enough or not Korean enough dissipated and I felt like I could be the fullest, most authentic version of myself, with both my Jewish and Korean identities. Hillel gave me opportunities to bring my Korean culture into my Jewish identity and vice versa. 

Going on Birthright, learning to lead services, deepening my connection to Herzl Camp, and building my community at Hillel led me to my decision to apply to Hillel International’s Springboard Fellowship. I never imagined working in the Jewish community, but these four years with Hillel as my Jewish home gave me the foundation and the passion to help students find meaning and community in their own Jewish identities.