Hello, Hillel!

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Leah Schiffer

Library walk is a battlefield of eye contact avoidance and flyer shooing. With scooters and salesmen zipping through from every and all directions — reminiscent of Spongebob braving the Macy’s perfume department — it’s a lawless land of sensory overload and fight-or-flight instincts, all concurrent with your morning mad dash to class. There are moments, however, when the chaos fades. A light shines down. A heavenly choir rings out the perfect chord, and the booths seem to call out to you, reminding you of parts of yourself that have become lost in the shuffle of college. Suddenly, a daunting journey becomes a walk down memory lane. This was my experience with UC San Diego Hillel, our university’s organization for Jewish student life. 

Judaism has always been a cornerstone of my identity. Years of Hebrew school classes culminated in my Bat Mitzvah, my official initiation into the realm of Jewish life and culture. Rocking a sparkly pink dress and unplucked eyebrows, I shimmied into the banquet hall of Jewish adulthood to the exhilarating sound of Pitbull’s “Fireball” blaring from the DJ booth. My ancestry became my badge of honor, and I was doing my part to keep our small but mighty heritage alive. 

So as I read the latest antisemitic headlines splashing across media platforms, I am re-invigorated with an ever-growing sense of pride in our community’s strength to traverse the odds. Police officers stand guard outside synagogues to thwart would-be hateful attacks, but we march on nonetheless. From Streisand to Sandler, from Paul Simon to Paul Rudd, Judaism is surely not short of noteworthy cultural icons, and I am proud as ever to play a small part in its history. 

With an assist from COVID-19 and monotonous online dreariness, this once prominent aspect of myself fell by the wayside — that is, until one fateful sunny afternoon when my eyes met the bold block letters of the Hillel booth. All at once, I was back at Jewish summer camp, transported to a world of kinship and belonging. With a flyer invitation to the next Shabbat dinner and a novelty chapstick in hand, I felt whole again. 

Friday night rolled around, and I hopped on the bus to venture to new territory, determined to break my year-long social hiatus and wring out every last ounce that was left of the diminishing runway that was my college experience. As I lingered on the stoop of Hillel’s former headquarters, an old converted house humbly nestled in the La Jolla suburbs, I quickly double-checked the address, unsure of how this small structure could truly be the famed home of UCSD Jewish student life. Then it dawned on me. This was Judaism in a nutshell: an unassuming hub of culture and connection. A mere one-story home filled to the brim with the relentless strength of a dwindling community subject to an endless history of persecution. Hearing the murmur of voices bellowing from within and smelling the preparations of a comforting Shabbat meal, I knew I was home.  

I was welcomed graciously into the organization and re-introduced to my heritage. I found myself returning weekly and accepting any and all opportunities that were presented, becoming a mentor for lowerclassmen despite my own newcomer status. Spreading my vast third-year wisdom, I advised others to avoid my same mistakes and become involved far sooner, as I regretted my years of college spent without the undying warmth of this community. 

Four months later, construction on San Diego’s new home of Judaism was finalized at long last. UCSD Hillel had endured years spent in the outgrown space of their suburban retreat, but they were wandering through the desert no more! The much anticipated Beverly and Joseph Glickman Hillel Center, a bastion of possibility with state-of-the-art architecture and amenities, has opened its doors for the Jewish and non-Jewish population alike. This impressive structure stands as a beacon of community: a mecca for students of all faiths and backgrounds to converge in an arena of safety and support. Whether you come to study, participate in events and film screenings, or take advantage of the free Shabbat dinner (the brisket alone is worth the trip), I recommend you experience the marvels of Hillel’s social center for yourself. 

The impressive feat of the Hillel Center, successfully maneuvering through a morass of legal opposition, once again proves the fierce resilience of the Jewish population. It makes me all the more honored to have regained touch with my community and celebrate its continued growth. 

So the next time you put your headphones in to avoid another library walk ambush, remember to pop your head up to the booths every once in a while. You never know what you may find. 

Photo Via SD Metro Magazine