One Hillel of a club: promoting Jewish learning

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Brianna Glenn

It was cold and nearly dark when I went to the Hut.  Fortunately, the freezing temperatures and approaching night gave way to warm smiles and welcoming light.

I was going to Shabbat, a weekly event put on by Guilford College’s chapter of Hillel, “the largest Jewish campus organization in the world,” according to the Hillel International website.

“We promote Jewish learning on campus,” said club president and first-year Stephanie Byer. “We’re open to everyone who wants to come learn and participate.”

The group of around 11 people was indeed very welcoming.  I was visiting a particularly special Shabbat celebration, one that included wearing pajamas and making s’mores.

Shabbat is the Hebrew word for Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of rest meant to represent G-d resting after creating the world.

Shabbat is observed from sundown on Fridays until nightfall on Saturdays.

While there, before making the s’mores, we lit candles, poured wine — in this case, grape juice — and broke delicious Challah bread, all while saying the requisite blessings.

After this welcoming and eye-opening ceremony, attendees could have more bread, grape juice, cookies, milk and s’mores. The meeting became more of a time to speak among friends and reflect on the week’s events.

Senior Will Singley is not a member of Hillel, nor is he Jewish, but he had a pleasant time at the Shabbat ceremony.

“I had never worn a yarmulke before, so that was neat,” Singley said in an email interview. “It is always very neat to get first-hand experience and learn about the customs of a different religion that you are not normally exposed to.”

Had it not been for Byer and her friends, these experiences might not have been possible.

Junior Sara Besmertnik was one of the few people involved in Hillel last year and had been running into issues with event attendance, as well as finding new leadership.

“We asked around to see if anyone would step up to lead Hillel for this year and nobody said they would,” said Besmertnik in an email interview. “We didn’t fill out a budget request and the club ended up on hiatus.”

“Stephanie (Byer) and I are both in the (Am I The Only One) club, and one night we started doing our own little Shabbat service in the Hut,” said Hillel member and first-year Amanda Libby. “Other people heard about it and wanted to know if we would start up the Hillel club again. We both said yes and started having official meetings.”

Besmertnik was able to meet with Byer and get the club back on track, both financially and organizationally.

Hillel now holds Shabbat on Fridays at 7 p.m. in the Hut. They also meet on Mondays twice a month at 6 p.m. in the Hub in the Library. These meeting are open to the campus community.

Upcoming events include a Hanukkah celebration and multiple events for the spring, including a Passover event.

“You do’t have to identify as Jewish to join the Hillel,” said treasurer and first-year Laura Todd, who is not Jewish herself. “All people are welcome as long as they are open-minded and respectful of the faith.”

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