On a humid Westwood night, my roommates, Mai and Chelsea, and I were walking back to our dorm. Our stomachs ached with laughter and our bellies were full from a night out.
“Which way should we take home?” Mai asked. We all paused and acknowledged the sacred admission that had just been made. “Home.” Our small, triple room was deemed that sacred place. But why? What makes home?
Home can look like a lot of different things, but the sentiment essential to any home is a sense of belonging. For some, it is the smell of Bubbie’s freshly-baked Challah and the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack that defines their childhood home. Some think of their childhood room, with boy band posters littered along pink walls, and the smell of Victoria’s Secret perfume. Others think of their childhood stuffed animal, mezuhuh-marked doorways or the smell of lavender.
After two years stuck at home, many grew accustomed to their intimate spaces, making the abrupt transition to college even harder. We talked to five Jewish freshmen about the places most holy to them, and how they have made UCLA feel like home.
Leah Wilderman is a first-year cognitive science major with a passion for Israel and applesauce. To her, home is Camp Ramah in the Rocky Mountains. Crisp alpine air and Shabbat hymns around the campfire define her sacred place. Leah has attended Camp Ramah for eight years, seven as a camper and one as a counselor. Pictures from camp and notes from camp friends adorn her walls.
The time when Leah felt most at home, ironically, was when a building burned down at camp. Students and staff sat in a grass field in the middle of the night, securing safety from the flames. She describes a counselor taking out his guitar as every camp member sang melodies to pass the time. “Part of what makes a place is finding comfort and safety in scary times,” Leah says.
At UCLA, Leah turns to Hillel to connect to her faith and find belonging. “I made good friends really quickly,” she says. Friday night Shabbat services feel extra special. Leah appreciates that they use a mix of “old, familiar melodies from Camp and temple,” as well as new, exciting melodies she has not heard before.. Leah’s transition to UCLA has been much like the melodies at Hillel: familiar memories from Camp and Temple mixed with new activities like Ultimate Frisbee.
What has helped Leah feel most at home at UCLA is having the courage to find “new people, things I enjoy and yet having activities that feel like home.”
Jonah Sullivan, from Boston, and Ethan Jurow, from the Bay Area, are first-year students. Jonah and Ethan were random roommates, who immediately bonded because of their love of music and Judaism.
Sometimes it’s the little things that make you feel at home; paying attention to and honoring simple pleasures can help cultivate a sense of comfort. Jonah shared that drinking his family’s favorite drink, sparkling water, and reading before bed help him feel at home. Facetiming his mom and his adorable dogs definitely helps him feel connected as well.
“I have a home at UCLA,” Ethan says. But home isn’t one place or feeling. Jonah chimed in and shared that his hometown, friends, and grandparent’s house felt like home. They’re “still home and never stopped being that.” Jonah shares that one day, UCLA too, can feel like home.
Like Leah, Shabbat dinners help Jonah and Ethan feel connected to the campus and their faith. Ethan describes that “something about everyone being together and them [Hillel] making food for you is warming.”
Ethan finds belonging through music and playing guitar, and reaching his fans through his Spotify. Ethan’s guitar playing is another little pleasure that reminds Jonah of home, as his father plays guitar.
“Having my guitar with me takes me back to playing music in my bedroom,” Ethan shares. Indeed, setting the ambiance, playing your favorite songs, and creating new music are truly intimate feelings.
Asher Cohen, a freshman philosophy student from North Carolina, shares Ethan’s kinship with music. “I think of music as a place and associate it with a time in life,” Asher comments. “I remember vividly where I was the first time I listened to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.” Reliving these nostalgic moments is as simple as pressing play.
Asher’s living space serves as a testament to his love for music. Albums sit on his shelves, especially Silver Jews, the band that reminds him most of his North Carolina home. Asher describes them as “subtle reminders of home.”
During Parents’ Weekend, Asher went back to North Carolina: “When I went home last week, I wasn’t thinking about the place itself or the buildings or anything, but the people within the place.” For all of our freshmen, relationships were far more valuable than any place.
Asher says that his “roommates definitely feel like home.” Even the people in his hall, his Hillel friends and the people he sees on a daily basis contribute to a feeling of belonging. For him, sharing experiences with his friends at UCLA (like taking his roommate to see his favorite band) help define Asher’s new home.
For Hailey Zill, UCLA is just a stone’s throw away from her home in the Los Angeles Valley. Moreover, her sister is a senior at UCLA—they share a major (World Arts and Cultures) and a mutual love of Hillel.
When asked about home, Hailey shares beloved memories of her family’s traditions and pets. Each Thanksgiving, Hailey’s family maintains an “open door policy.” Family, friends and strangers who have no place to eat for the holiday flock to their house to enjoy a warm meal.
Jewish traditions are particularly special to Hailey. Hanukkah is Hailey’s favorite holiday and the time when she feels most at home. “Hanukkah is a tradition I treasure,” explains Hailey, “because not only does it remind me of my Jewish identity, but it also reminds me of my family, celebration, and community. I remember playing Dreidel with all my friends as we fought over who would be the winning chocolate gelt collecting champion. Hanukkah parties are always crazy—crazy fun!”
To Hailey, home isn’t so much a place as it is an experience and a community. Like many others, she turns to Hillel as a home-away-from-home. She describes Hillel as a “Jewish family” that “brings traditions and people together.” At UCLA, making friends that share the same values help Hailey feel at ease. Of course, friendships from home still remain; Hailey keeps pictures of her six pets above her bed and definitely misses her puppy snuggles.
Home is a truly sacred thing and can feel too far away during the college transition. Six weeks into college life, our freshmen are still adjusting to this daunting new chapter of their lives.
For most of our interviewees, their connection with the people around them and their faith and shared experiences helped establish a sense of belonging. On the other hand, mementos, such as music and pictures, kept their hometowns close to their hearts.
Tying all of this together is the comfort of tradition they experience at Hillel, which brings their past Judaic experiences and traditions into the comfort of their current “home.” Where language, tradition and ritual meld, “home” becomes a feeling that is neither defined nor confined by any particular, physical space.