Deconstructing your Jewish identity on campus

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Pictured are Julie Levitt, Erez Cohen, and Jessica Ost celebrating Israel's Independence on "Israel on the Quad."

Being a student in college is a multifaceted experience. College students go to their classes, attend lectures, and other academic events on campus, make new friends, join extra curriculars, and participate in a multitude of other activities. Most importantly, however, being a college student is about deconstructing your identity in order to rediscover yourself, strengthening your convictions through education and exploration, and hopefully answering the question: What will I do with my life?  For us Jewish college students, a second, but equally compelling question becomes: Will Judaism and a Jewish community be part of my life?

I didn't know the answer to that question when I started school four years ago. In remembering my younger, more naïve freshman self, a story involving Hillel comes immediately to mind. Early on, I attended an extremely anti-Israel and anti-Semitic event during which  Israel Defense Forces military effort in Gaza, Operation Castlead, was attacked, and I can't begin to describe how alienated I felt being both Jewish and a supporter of Israel. The worst feeling, however, was that I did not know how to respond effectively or process these emotions.

Growing up in Skokie, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism were not issues I had to deal with first hand. I certainly didn't expect to face these issues at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Having a support system at Hillel was comforting, and having that community was essential.

After witnessing the anti-Israel activities on campus, I knew I wanted to combat them and show Israel in a positive and realistic light. Hillel was the only effective place on campus for me to become a leader in this endeavor. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I became an Israel Intern through the JUF/Hillel Israel Initiative, where I worked very closely with our amazing Israel Fellow, Erez Cohen, to create events on campus about Israel on a variety of issues. The Israel Fellow is a 1-2 year visiting position funded through the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hillel, and the Jewish Federations of North America. Throughout this internship, I have learned what it means to be a Jewish leader: Thousands of students on campus have attended the events I have organized, which have exposed them to the many positive aspects of Israel.

I then went on to become a Lewis Summer Intern for the Jewish United Fund's Jewish Community Relations Council, where I got my first taste of what it means to be part of a professional Jewish community. I was thrilled to have a leadership role in part planning a vigil for IDF soldier's Gilad Shalit's return.  

My connection to Hillel was very much influenced by my passion for Israel advocacy. But Israel advocacy doesn't have to be the focus for every Jewish student on campus. Some students are looking for a place to express their environmentalism or their passion for tikkun olam. Others find joy in helping prepare Shabbat dinners or lead Passover seders. Most of us are in search of who we want to be and the resources to help us achieve it. And that is where Hillel lets us take the reins of our Jewish college experiences.

When graduation finally approached, the thought of leaving Hillel evoked both sweet and sad emotions. The sweetness comes from my excitement of continuing my life being involved with Jewish issues as a Jewish professional. Hillel and JUF have provided me the necessary skills to be able to actualize my goals of having an impact on the Jewish world. The bitterness of graduating is leaving Hillel at UIUC, my home away from home. I spent four amazing years in the building, in the community, meeting new people, and engaging in new experiences. Although my time at Hillel has come to an end, all of my memories and education at Hillel will truly last me a lifetime and will have a continuous impact on my future career.

Jessica Ost graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the spring. She is a currently a Campus Affairs & Student Engagement Intern for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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