Homecoming in a Hillel House

I felt out of place in my own religion of origin, so why would a new one feel any more comfortable?
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On a Friday afternoon in October during my first semester of college, I received a text from my friend Jake. He told me to meet him in the lounge of our building at 5:45, so we could walk up the street to Hillel together for Kabbalat Shabbat.

I was terrified.

A few days prior, I’d finally worked up the courage to ask him if I could tag along to services one night. Our first conversation during orientation found the both of us lying on the floor of the second-floor lounge with our computers out, combing through which classes to add or drop. When I’d expressed my desire to take a history class centering around European Jewry during WWII, Jake told me he was raised Jewish and had registered for an Ancient Israel history class. We sat there for hours, our discussion jumping from religious rituals to the modern State of Israel.

I was born and raised Catholic and attended religious schools from ages 2 to 18. Other than my non-practicing sister-in-law, I knew no Jews, despite growing up in a heavily Orthodox area. Even though I went to Mass every Sunday, led retreats at my all-girls high school, and even considered becoming a nun at one point, I’d grown emotionally and spiritually distant from my faith by my high school graduation. I was disillusioned with the social teachings and bureaucracy of the Church and frustrated that my questions regarding Christianity’s most central beliefs felt unanswered. I hoped that by surrounding myself with people of other faiths at Rutgers, I would not only burst my Catholic bubble, but also renew my faith.

At that moment, though, as I struggled to decide whether it was acceptable to wear a dress that showed my knees, I regretted this pursuit of the unknown. Jake told me we were going to Conservative services, but I had no clue what that meant. I told myself people would be offended by my attendance, they would know I was different despite the fact that I’d taken off my cross necklace years ago, that going to services was sinful and idolatrous. I felt out of place in my own religion of origin, so why would a new one feel any more comfortable?

About an hour later, as we sat in the dining room, I was overwhelmed, but not with the negative feelings I had expected. Everyone was so kind to me, even if I stared a little too long at men wearing kippot or had to hide my amazement at a woman being a rabbi. When I quickly confessed to a boy sitting next to me at dinner that I wasn’t Jewish, his reply was instantaneous: “That doesn’t matter.” The visceral experience I had while sitting in on the service, doing my best to jump from the Hebrew transliteration to the English translations in the siddur, went beyond appreciating another culture or academic curiosity. I felt like windshield wipers had cleared the doubt and boredom from my mind that so often clouded my prayer in a church. It was just a regular Friday service: no holiday additions, no instruments, and no huge crowd. I couldn’t comprehend how familiar prayers professed in a language I’d never heard before sounded as though they reflected my innermost beliefs about God and His love for His creation.

I attended a few more services and signed up for some Jewish Studies classes that next spring, which I completed in my bedroom during the height of the pandemic. I declared a Jewish Studies major soon after. I kept diving deeper, even if I was physically removed from the people and place that connected me to Jewish life in the first place. This was no longer a side hobby for me, but something more intrinsic.

This October will mark two years since the spiritual beginnings of my conversion to Judaism. While my Jewish practices are now more focused — weekly Torah studies with a rabbi, keeping kosher, learning Hebrew — that initial feeling of both wonder and intense familiarity still takes my breath away at times. I still struggle to dismantle my feelings of inadequacy and imposterism in Jewish spaces, and likely will for some time. As I did for most of my Catholic life, I turn to prayer, specifically one of the lines that stood out to me at that first Shabbat:

“Ani Adonai Eloheichem,

asher hotzeiti et’chem

me’eretz Mitzrayim

lihyot lachem le’Elohim.

Ani Adonai Eloheichem.”

[And if you’re like me and skittish around Hebrew]:

“Thus will you remember and do all of my commandments,

and so be holy before your God.

I am Adonai, your God, who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.

I am Adonai, your God.”

Like my pull to Judaism, these lines within the Friday service have always felt insistent, repetitive even. They are the confirmation of what I now know: this is my God, and my community, too.

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