Life transitions in general can be difficult, and the transition to college can be especially daunting. Starting college amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life-but also one of the most rewarding.
Up until this point in my life, my home was my physical house in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Little did I know that I was about to discover where my home really is.
I didn't understand how special Hillel truly is until I attended an event in person. I should quickly note that Illini Hillel has done an absolutely amazing job of upholding COVID-19 guidelines and keeping everyone safe. So, I knew that I was going to a place where everyone would have had a recent negative COVID test and would be wearing masks correctly while also upholding social distancing guidelines. Anyways, the first student-led activity that I attended was a socially distanced cookie decorating event put together by Hillel's freshmen engagement interns. It served as my first experience of feeling at home away from home. Upon the conclusion of that event, I knew that I wanted to also work with Hillel to engage Jewish students, and specifically let other students know that Hillel is there to support them. Hillel became my home on campus because it's where my community is.
At the beginning of 2021, I became a freshmen engagement intern at Illini Hillel. This year-long internship has allowed me to make personal connections with new students by planning programs, taking students for coffee, and reaching out about upcoming events. I had worked at my temple as a madricha (teaching assistant) for many years (and currently work as a camp counselor at the Chicago Botanic Gardens' Camp CBG in the summer), so I already had some leadership experience, but I never could have envisioned just how strong and supportive the Illini Hillel community is. Everyone at Hillel is always excited to engage, creating a space where I can truly relax and try to let go of academic stressors.
For me, the most important aspect of being Jewish is being able to deeply connect with others through practicing the traditions of our ancestors. Jewish rituals have always been at the center of my Jewish identity, and Passover has always been at the heart of those empowering and meaningful traditions. As an engagement intern, I led the planning for a model Passover Seder as a way of introducing Passover to students who hadn't before celebrated the holiday. We held our chocolate Seder outside (complying with COVID safety guidelines) and ate different types of chocolate desserts to symbolize specific aspects of a traditional Seder.
I am so deeply grateful that I can say that I have the opportunity to connect with others in the University of Illinois Jewish community and look forward to continuing to have those priceless opportunities in the future.
So, when I've had a bad day or I'm feeling anxious, I take a short walk to Hillel-and the second I cross the threshold into the building, I am home.
Rachel Wiengart is an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.