When I started college, I never expected that I would find family. I found people that wanted to bring out the best in me. They have made me feel supported, inspired and most importantly like I belong. When I walked into Hillel, it was then that I knew I was home.
It was my first Friday night on campus and there were Shabbat services going on. I got a text from one of my close friends inviting me to go with her, so I did. Before heading over, I was panicking about what to wear. Unsure of what to do, I decided to dress more traditionally orthodox. I got fancy with my hair and makeup, wanting to give a good first impression. As I was prepping, I spoke to my roommate about my worries of being unable to speak Hebrew. Would they think of me differently for not being able to speak my native tongue? It made me think of the times when I was at services as a child, how I just stood there, ashamed with the weight of knowing that I understood nothing. All I could hear was white noise. I pushed those thoughts away as I continued getting ready.
Not too long after, my other friend picked me up and the two of us walked together to meet the one that invited me to Hillel. As we were walking, my hands were sweating and my heart was pounding. My thoughts raced as we slowly approached Hillel. Part of me wanted to turn around right then, though my friend gently placed a hand on my shoulder, reassuring me that it was going to be alright. So, he and I walked up the steps and slowly like a ticking clock, I opened the door. We walked into the room and immediately felt the love and passion. My friend and I were greeted by so many lovely people that welcomed us with open arms.
About ten minutes later, we headed upstairs to start the services and all of the butterflies came back. People passed out the booklets and I skimmed through some pages to find most of them in Hebrew. My heart dropped. The thought of not being able to sing along or that I would look out of place made me feel sick. Unfortunately, there was no way of getting out of the situation. So I sat there and prayed I would somehow manage.
We started singing songs and after all of that, I didn’t even have to worry about it. They didn’t care if you were fluent or you didn’t know any. They just wanted you to enjoy yourself. When I didn’t know the lyrics, I simply hummed the tune instead. People were playing the violin, guitars, shakers and singing their hearts out. The room was full of life like I had never seen before. For one song, we were running around in circles switching directions between lines. Laughing, I tripped over my skirt but got right back into place, pretending nothing happened.
In those moments, I felt free to be myself. It was the most I had ever enjoyed services in my life. For once, I didn’t feel discouraged about my differences. At some point the services did end, but I wish they hadn’t. I could have sung the whole night and still have wanted more.
I remember after the next Shabbat service, telling the executive director how coming to services had changed me. I talked to him about my struggles of being unable to speak Hebrew, but coming to Hillel made me realize that it wasn’t as important. This was an opportunity to learn and to grow, and everyone there would be ready to help me. I talked to him about how I felt, that this was truly my family, and that I couldn’t have been any more honored to be able to join them for all the events they would hold. He started tearing up, though it made me happy that I warmed his heart, I felt bad for making him cry. We hugged it out and I might have even teared up a little myself because it truly was a beautiful moment. When we both finally contained ourselves, he offered to teach me the prayers in Hebrew. I couldn’t even express how excited I felt. The only thing I knew was that things couldn’t get any better than this.