I must confess, back in August, I was nervous about the state of affairs for Jewish Life would look like this academic year. After such a long period of virtual and then hybrid learning, we were finally opening the doors to fully in-person classes. We had a short list of students and limited information about how many Jewish students transferred or started at Queens. We started the academic year with small list of students and big dreams. But the anxiety quickly subsided after we participated in the campus clubs and orgs fair. By Rosh Hashanah, our list grew to 20 students, and only increased from there as we ended the year with 26 engaged Hillel students.
Our Hillel year always gets off to a quick start with the Jewish Fall Festivals. Two weeks into the semester we celebrated the High Holidays holding Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services and meals on campus. This was our first opportunity of the year to explore what our students wanted out of Jewish Life and to have them connect in sacred space. The shofar was blown by Coordinator of Jewish Life, Noah Goldman and Campus Rabbi Judy conducted brief but powerful sermons. Following these two high holidays, we collectively build our artistically graffitied Sukkah and to enjoy sushi, pizza and quality time together. For some it was their first time ever in the Sukkah. Our successful fall celebrations set a strong foundation of social connections that would carry us through the entire school year.
This year, we were thrilled to offer our hallmark programs that make Hillel so beloved on campus. There was our warmly welcomed monthly traditions of serving matzo ball soup and challah to the campus community. Mimi’s Matzo Ball Soup warms up campus spirit and students, faculty, and staff loved receiving soft challahs once a month Hillel. Our celebratory Shabbat programs continued throughout the school year with various themes ranging from Israel Shabbat to Soul Food Shabbat allowing us to spend quality time together and solidifying the relationships among us that create our Hillel family.
Other bridgebuilding highlights were our participation in International Education Week and Presbyterian and Pluralist Week. In the former, we showcased different Jewish communities around the world and their fascinating customs, thus sharing the diversity within Judaism. One Jewish student said exploring this Jewish diversity helped her have a deeper appreciation with being Jewish. During Presbyterian & Pluralist Week, we taught the campus community about Havdalah while enjoying smores around a campfire.
Our second annual Chanukah menorah mural built and painted by our Hillel students alongside Jewish artist and Queens Professor Mike Wirth, was again a most meaningful opportunity. The theme was “What Makes Us, Us.” We showcased Jewish Peoplehood through symbols painted on our large Chanukiah. On the first night, we joined Chabad of Charlotte for an outdoor concert that lit up our spirits. Each night of Chanukah we welcomed various community partners including: Chabad of Charlotte, Temple Israel, Temple Beth El, the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, and the Belk Chapel. We were delighted to share the holiday of Chanukah with so many incredible organizations. The Chanukah mural brightened up our campus as it faced the busy Selwyn Avenue.
Newer innovative programs of the year included Torah & Tea – a weekly informal program where students could de-stress with a cup of tea and explore a touch of Torah with Rabbi Judy.
Additionally, thanks to two generous grants from Hillel International, we were able to conduct three amazing programs. We hosted an Israeli Cultural Shabbat catered by Yafo’s Kitchen. With Israeli music play in the background, we shared stories of our own experiences in Israel. Students were gifted an Israel travel guide for when they go to Israel. Students who have yet to go to Israel were asking about Birthright trips and those who had been to the Holy Land reminisced about their time there.
Second, we partnered with Jewish Family Services to have a brunch and Klezmer music program on Shalom Park with local Holocaust survivors. 19 Holocaust survivors and 15 Queens students along with family and community members came to this brunch program to celebrate life and share stories. And lastly, we held an Interfaith Seder where members of different organizations across Queens came to participate in a Passover Seder. We got to learn about liberation through a variety of perspectives and we taught our peers about this important holiday.
Our final program was a Graduation Shabbat to celebrate our two graduating seniors, Jessica Austin and Kate Halickman. It was during our final Shabbat that we installed our Hillel Leadership Board for next year. I am confident that Jewish Life at Queens will only get bigger and stronger each year as we have since we started out with one student back in 2014.
As I have been writing this article and reflecting on our Jewish Life journey at Queens, I realize how much we have learned and grown despite the pandemic. We are looking forward to continuing our amazing growth.