“There are Jews in Nebraska?” said my new roommate, smiling at me with oblivious enthusiasm. “There’s a small community,” I said, thinking back to the intimate Jewish cohort of 16 I grew up going to synagogue with. Being raised in Omaha, Nebraska, I always wanted to surround myself with more Jewish people I could identify with. The only taste I got was at a Jewish summer camp tucked away in the woods of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. So, I craved more.
Coming from Omaha, Nebraska, the transition to UCLA was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. I am someone who has always fantasized about moving far away from home and starting over in a new place. But when the time came to do it, I felt like a fish out of water. The number of people I have met and the experiences I have had felt overwhelming and I did not know my place in any of it. I found myself too wrapped up in internal overstimulation to reach out of my comfort zone and begin to build community. For the first three weeks of classes, there was a running joke among my friends on campus that I couldn’t find the Hillel building. Even my attempts to look up the address on Apple Maps were unsuccessful. Each time I came close, but I could never find my way to the correct spot. As much as I wanted to be part of the Jewish community, something deep inside stopped me. Looking back, I realize it was a fear of disappointment. I had waited my whole adolescent life to find a Jewish community where I felt I belonged, and I wanted it to be everything I had hoped it would be.
Finally, my mom convinced me to attend Shabbat services over the parents’ weekend. Though I was apprehensive, I agreed to go. When we walked into the space, the chairs were set up in a circle and the guitar music had already begun to play. The tension in my shoulders began to loosen as familiar memories of summer camp flooded back to me. We took our seats, and the service began. I had never been one for prayer, but something about the apparent sense of community made me want to join in. At different points in the service, Hillel student board members would stand to speak about their positions and love for the UCLA Jewish community. During one of the speeches, my mom leaned over to me and said, “I could see you being friends with some of these kids.” For the first time since coming to campus, I believed her.
For the Dvar Torah, a girl came up and spoke about the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. She said the only difference between that story in the Torah and the Quran is the son Abraham sacrificed: In the Torah, Abraham sacrifices his son Isaac, but in the Quran, he sacrifices his other son, Ishmael. She then talked about how the choice that Abraham made influenced the subsequent events in each of the holy books. She continued the sermon by relating it back to the decisions we must make in our lives. I began to think back to my own choices, specifically, the choice to come to UCLA: a big school, far from home, with so much discomfort attached to it. As she spoke, though, that discomfort began to fall away. I realized I was taking the first steps in building my own Jewish community just by walking in the doors of Hillel that evening.
Now, I stand a little straighter as I move around campus. The homesickness that once felt imminent and all-consuming has since faded into the background. I no longer get lost when I go to Hillel. Instead, I wave at people who are coming and going from the building. The Jewish community at UCLA has given me the courage and koah (strength) to continue building a life for myself here and reminds me that no matter how crazy things get, I always have a home to come back to.