frenchpony (frenchpony) wrote,
frenchpony
frenchpony

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Curiouser and curiouser

I was at Hillel tonight, hanging around waiting for services to begin, when I thought I saw a face I recognized. In a university of over 50,000 people, where most of my friends are Gentile graduate students, I thought I recognized someone at the mostly undergraduate Hillel. He went to the Conservative service, and I went to the Reform service, but we all met up for dinner afterwards. He came straight to my table, and lo and behold! He and I went to The Fairest College together! He was a freshling when I was a senior, so he recognized me before I recognized him, but. . . weird. The Fairest College has 1,600 students. The University has 50,000. The Fairest College is in an entirely different time zone than the University. What are the odds that I'd run into another Fairest College graduate, at the University, at Hillel, one ordinary Friday night? One can never escape one's alma mater. . .

Random meetings with old acquaintances aside, it's strange to be going to Hillel again after five years of a regular city shul. There's a distinct Hillel culture, and it's frightening how easily it comes back. All the summer-camp-style singing, the gung-ho, let's-all-have-us-some-nice-Jewish_fun! atmosphere, and a certain sense of being somewhat disconnected.

I haven't yet decided how I feel about the University Hillel. Certainly, I don't feel the same way about it as I did going to Hillel at The Fairest College as an undergrad. There are a few obvious differences, size being the main one. University Hillel is a much bigger operation. And it's affiliated with national Hillel, whereas the one at The Fairest College wasn't. And I'm older now, and I've been out of school and attending a real shul. So maybe it's just my perspective that's changed.

Whatever it is, I think there's something a little melancholy about University Hillel. It's large, as I said, and rather impersonal. The undergrads all seem to know each other, and they squeal and hug as they gather for services. Then services begin. The leaders read very quickly, and a little too brightly, and cover up a certain tentativeness in the singing with a guitar. A student stands and rattles off a short d'var Torah. Underneath it all, it feels desperate and a tiny bit frightened.

I guess that's natural. Most of the Hillel attendees are undergraduates, just beginning to step out from their home communities, suddenly having to forge their own religious life. They're eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, and suddenly they have to be cantor and rabbi and Make It Happen. And it's all Different. They'll come through it just fine, and I hope that they'll all graduate and find apartments a few blocks away from a lovely warm welcoming shul, like I did, and begin to make a community for themselves there. But in the meantime, they're neither here nor there, in a place that isn't quite a shul and isn't quite school. It reminds me of the time I spent thirteen hours in the train station in Milan. After a while, it becomes familiar, but it isn't a place to stay. People are always coming and going. It's exciting, but sad at the same time.

Hillel at The Fairest College was smaller, and could afford to be more intimate and personal. I think I liked it better then. Maybe it was just as desperate and I just didn't notice it, but I think the smaller group was better able to deal with the rupture and loneliness of trying to form a religious community at college. I find University Hillel much more difficult. Shabbat isn't nearly as joyous as it was. The prayer that comes easiest to me now is the Mi Shebeirach, for healing. Something about University Hillel is wounded, and I'm not sure what it is. Maybe it's just me. Or maybe there really is that undercurrent of panic beneath the careful greetings and camp-counselor perkiness. Maybe a little of both.

I don't know how I feel about this Hillel. I want to like it, because I remember how much I liked Hillel at The Fairest College. Maybe I'll get used to it again. Maybe not. I'll give it a semester and see.</lj>
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