At Brown RISD Hillel a few weeks ago, amid the spirited davening, singing and eating on Shabbat during the commencement/reunion weekend, I saw something larger, too: many of the keys to Jewish continuity.
That night you could vividly see, hear and taste the attributes that make a Jewish community work. This recipe for success – so passionately sought throughout the Jewish world – deserves some consideration.
At its center, there was a strong sense of place and home, one that inspires fierce loyalty. Perhaps it was predictable that there would be a tight cadre of graduating seniors celebrating a major rite of passage. Less predictable was that younger students attended, as well as a vocal group from last year’s graduating class that wanted to root on the seniors.
The group that had gathered was decidedly non-exclusive. Parents and siblings of the seniors joined in with spirit. Alumni stretching back nearly 50 years were part of the circle, including some who hadn’t been active in Hillel during college and a few who had never even been to a service at Hillel before.
As people introduced themselves one by one and said why they came, it was clear that the multiple generations represented, l’dor v’dor, were a draw for students and alums (including me).
The ruach, or spirit, was contagious. Melodies spanned a number of genres and there was the pleasant anticipation of not knowing what would come next – including a Lecha Dodi that was “crowdsourced,” with suggestions taken from whoever spoke up.
The atmosphere was relaxed – if you didn’t know the tune, you could pick up it from the strong singers, la-la-la your way along, or just enjoy listening. There was great respect for people who observed prayers differently.
The physical space for the service, and later dinner, was simple in its beauty. Being surrounded by art, both objects and striking Hillel organization posters, added to the experience.
The food – so important at Jewish gatherings – was tasty and healthy without being ostentatious, and the intergenerational mixing at tables made for an interesting sharing of perspectives and histories. During services, a senior remarked that he hoped that he too would return for his 35th reunion, like an alum in the room.
Hillel’s clergy was friendly and inspiring, the staff thoughtful and well-organized.
We may think of the synagogue to which we belong, and of other Jewish organizations, and say to ourselves, yes, we already have these elements, or at least many of them. The secret, however, is in the alchemy, the mix of ingredients.
No place is ever perfect – maybe that social hall could use sprucing up, or that melody is a little off one week. The real solution lies in having the vision and courage to keep tinkering and rebalancing.
Some may think that Hillels have it easy. Yes, college can be a bubble, and it offers a tremendous opportunity for growth and engagement, including in Judaism. But that doesn’t mean that Hillels have a simple path, since students can vote with their feet, like all Jews, and leave the rooms empty or without spirit.
What was magical that recent night at Hillel is that a people-centric community had been created and curated. You couldn’t see the stitching (a sign of good planning), but a huge effort had been made to build a true kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.
Creating such a place is an opportunity throughout the Jewish world. Not an easy one, but possible. It involves risk – but also promises great rewards. Just think: it could start with something as small (and large) as the cantor asking congregants to name a favorite tune and making that the melody of the day.
NOEL RUBINTON is a writer based in Providence.