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In Appreciation of Columbia’s Hillel

How the Columbia/Barnard Hillel brought me comfort and helped me take control of my Jewish path

Raquel Wildes
May 19, 2016
Jonathan Bell / Flickr
Graduation ceremonies at Columbia University in New York City in 2009. Jonathan Bell / Flickr
Jonathan Bell / Flickr
Graduation ceremonies at Columbia University in New York City in 2009. Jonathan Bell / Flickr

Like many other graduates of Jewish day schools, I was sent off to college by my high school’s administration with an unopened copy of Mitchell Bard’s Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. I would become an unofficial spokesperson for Judaism and for Israel on campus, I was told, and any questions I had could and would be answered in its 384 pages. Armed with this book, I prepared to enter the murky, hotbed of political activism that exists at Columbia University.

Before I left, I did everything I could to mentally prepare myself to take on the promise of endless opportunity that college was famed to offer. I was ready to get involved with clubs and student groups like Design for America and the Delta Gamma sorority; to make lifelong friends who would be my partners-in-crime and, one day, my bridesmaids; to take classes that would make my parent’s friends “ooh” and “ahh,” such as “Comedy in American Cinema” with Professor Robert King or “Religion in the City” with Professor Courtney Bender; and to cite Ghandi’s philosophy of non-violence and to discuss the ethics of being a Machiavellian leader over sandwiches and fruit compote in the dining halls and in between rounds of beer pong at frat houses.

As an idealistic Ivy Leaguer, I (naively) thought I would be invincible, that I could do it all by myself. But I didn’t have to. Though Columbia is listed as one of the worst campuses for anti-Semitism, it also has one of the most robust Jewish communities of any college campus. And I owe much of my comfort and growth as a Jewish woman to the Columbia/Barnard Hillel.

The Hillel at Columbia anchored my Jewish identity throughout my four years as an undergraduate. Their programming filled my social, intellectual, and spiritual needs as I began to grasp the intricacies of Jewish and Israeli politics on my own. If I needed a quiet place to study when the library was full, Hillel opened its doors for extended hours. If I was craving shakshuka or freshly diced Israeli salad, I went to Café Nana on the second floor. Shabbat services and community-wide dinners? Hillel offered those too. In-depth forums to discuss Judaism’s complex relationship with Columbia’s core curriculum? Check.

And when it came time for college graduation, Hillel was there for me once again. I was given a safe space in which my peers and I could express our concerns about entering the so-called “real world,” a place where we could talk about how we might create our own Jewish communities beyond Columbia’s Kraft Center, such as hosting our own Shabbat dinners, joining Jewish social and philanthropic groups, and choosing to read a Jewish-themed book.

In the final weeks of college I remember sitting around a circle with 11 other anxious seniors as we drank beer and wine in the Hillel building. This was the beginning of a ten-week long seminar during which seniors would meet and bond over the highs and lows that come along with college graduation. We talked about everything from how to manage a budget, where to go for lunch after the commencement ceremony, how to get out of paying a broker’s fee on a new apartment, and how to maintain our personal values in places near and far.

At the first session, Rabbi Megan Goldman, the Columbia Hillel’s senior Jewish educator, gave us colored markers and construction paper, harkening back to our kindergarten days. She asked us to write down a six-word memoir describing our Jewish identities up to that point. I wrote: “My Modern Orthodoxy taken for granted.”

At the concluding session, Rabbi Megan asked us to write a new, forward-looking six-word memoir. That was one year ago, perhaps even to the day.

After that summer, I returned to Columbia for a graduate program in journalism. And sitting on my bookshelf, nestled between Bard’s book and The Elements of Style is a copy of Arthur Green’s Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers, which Rabbi Megan had given me. On the inside cover she wrote my original six word memoir. Next to it, she wrote the new one: “Making Judaism my choice, my commitment.”

Raquel Wildes, a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School, is an Audio Consultant at Tablet.