by Katie Matanky
My entire life has been spent in what most would consider a Jewish bubble. I've always lived in a Jewish community, attended Jewish day schools, and spent a year and a half at a seminary in Israel before returning to Chicago for college. The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) was not only my first time at public school; it was my first time in class with boys since kindergarten! To say the least, it was quite a transition.
It wasn't until my second semester that I reluctantly went to a Hillel meeting, per my friend's request. Up until then, I had not involved myself with any Jewish campus community - I didn't see the point. Little did I know that all it takes is one step, the one small effort of simply being present, and that's how you become a part of a Jewish community. In my experience, it was how the Hillel community became a part of me.
I then quickly transitioned from being a community member into a community leader. I found that my major outlet for leadership development was creating Shabbat experiences, an almost entirely student-run process. We planned the menu, bought the food, cooked it in our Hillel kitchen, set-up the dining area, served and cleaned up after the meal. With so much activity in the kitchen, students were even fortunate enough to receive training in kosher supervision from the CRC. Being Orthodox myself, attending Hillel Shabbat dinners meant staying on campus for all of Shabbat. If only we realized that the number of students staying overnight would soon grow from tens … to twenties ... to thirties ... reaching 40 people this semester, from many different backgrounds. And Shabbat has given all of us commuter students at UIC, and from many other campuses around the city, an experience students do not normally have, especially students like me from orthodox backgrounds - Hillel became my dorm room, the eruv defined my "quad".
As my campus Jewish community has grown, so has my perspective broadened about what a Jewish community can be. There is such a diverse group of Jews on campus that I would never have met if not for Hillel, and learning about all of their backgrounds has helped me develop an understanding of the complex, pluralistic world of Judaism. As Hillel President, I spoke at the UIC Hillel Alumni Reunion a few months ago and mentioned an analogy I learned in Israel about the Jewish People. Judaism can be envisioned as a circle, with one center, one goal, one focus and midpoint. What is most important to realize is that every point on the circle is equidistant to that center. No single point is better or closer to the center than another, and no point is farther away. Two points could be at opposite sides of the circle and still share that common focus, and be equally close to it. In Judaism, specifically in Hillel, we are all points on a circle; we are all equally close to the center, to the goal, no matter how different we are from one another.