Hillel has the right idea

The University Jewish Student Center knows the perfect mix of faith and friendship to attract any students, not just Jewish.

My parents tried to raise me with religion, but it never really worked out. I was the altar girl who tripped over her robe, sneezed in the wine and, more often than not, fell asleep on the job. In Catechism class, I asked âÄúinappropriateâÄù questions: âÄúIf Jesus looks anything like his photos âÄî tall, tan and skinny âÄî and this is supposed to be the Body of Christ,âÄù I inquired, referring to the host, âÄúthen why is it so small, pasty white, and flaky? Is this like the leftover elderly Jesus? âÄòCuz I am so not eating that. âÄúAnd if weâÄôre dining on his flesh every Sunday âĦ realistically, he had to have been grossly overweight,âÄù I added. âÄúThat is not the way we talk about Our Lord and Savior,âÄù my Catechism teachers repeatedly told me. It became obvious that I was the lone goat in a flock of sheep; I needed to find my own way. College was a welcome relief. I didnâÄôt have to drag myself out of bed on Sunday mornings and kneel through my hangover just to appease my parents, and if the Jehovah Witnesses stopped me on campus, I politely informed them that if they really wanted to âÄúsaveâÄù students, theyâÄôd best go after the University of Minnesota administration. They are the ones who are destroying our souls, one tuition bill at a time. I avoided religion at all costs, yet obnoxiously, it still managed to find me. To be more accurate, Sarah Routman found me. Routman is the current director of Hillel, the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Jewish Student Center, located just down from the Dinkydome on University. I applied for a sustainability internship there a year ago in the midst of a desperate job hunt, thinking it was a long shot. I was not Jewish, I didnâÄôt know anyone Jewish and the only time I used the word âÄúJudaismâÄù was to coin the supremely bizarre remarks that my co-worker, Judy, used to make on her smoke breaks. [For example: âÄúSometimes, I let my cats sit at the dinner table with me. ItâÄôs my hope that theyâÄôll begin to feel more human and maybe start answering the phone.âÄù ThatâÄôs a Judy-ism.] However, regardless of my religion, Routman decided to hire me. At first, being the only non-Jew at a Jewish community center was kind of like being gay in the military. I operated on a âÄúdonâÄôt ask, donâÄôt tellâÄù policy âÄî mostly out of fear. My fear was totally unfounded, of course, because as Routman explained, âÄúHillel strives to be a warm and welcoming place for all students. We want to provide a home for our Jewish students, but we also want any student to feel comfortable coming to Hillel to learn, share in one of our cultural experiences or even just to make use of our lounge and study space.âÄù She gave me this exact spiel upon my hire, but I didnâÄôt actually believe her. I was convinced I would need to keep my guard up in order to avoid all covert conversion tactics, but they never came. Initially, I found it easiest to pretend that I was Jewish. I dodged any questions like, âÄúWhat are your plans for Rosh Hashanah?âÄù or âÄúComing to the Shabbat services tonight?âÄù with a simple âÄúshalomâÄù and I choked down their latke lunches every Wednesday with a pained smile (I detest onions). My strategy appeared to be working because people continued to be nice to me. I congratulated myself for being an adept Jewish poser and was even contemplating a clandestine career in the CIA when one day I suddenly realized my incredible oversight. It had become my practice to Google any new Jewish words that I came across to remain in the know, and the word of that day was âÄúShabbat goy.âÄù A Shabbat goy is a non-Jewish person who assists Jewish people in activities that they are not allowed to perform on the Sabbath. Jewish law dictates that certain types of work are restricted on this day but that a non-Jewish person may offer to help. Every Friday night I had been working in the kitchen to prepare the meal served after HillelâÄôs Shabbat services, violating at least four of the 39 restricted forms of work, the most obvious being the act of cooking. Though not all Jews follow these restrictions, Hillel does its best to accommodate the more devoted students. Because I was cooking, everyone had known all along that I was a Shabbat goy and consequently, not Jewish. The joke was on me. For a moment, I felt offended. They didnâÄôt even want to convert me! They were only nice to me because they wanted me to light the stove, serve their meal and wash the dishes. Fortunately, I kept reading and found that I was in good company. Colin Powell, Mario Cuomo and Elvis Presley have all been recorded in history as notable Shabbat goys. Yet this column isnâÄôt really about my aversion for religion or my stint as a Shabbat goy, itâÄôs about the excellent sense of campus community Hillel strives to foster, without the overzealous pressures of conversion that often come with religious organizations. A good example of this is their recently unveiled Soup for U program. If you are a sick student on campus, your parent or friend may e-mail [email protected] and a free bowl of chicken matzoh ball or vegetarian soup and a cold care package will be delivered to your door by Hillel students. It costs nothing and it shows just how much they care. âÄúTikkun olam, repairing the world and tzedek, justice âÄî these are basic, very important Jewish values,âÄù Routman said. âÄúBy focusing on different service projects, Hillel students have the opportunity to give back to their community and to make the world a better place.âÄù In many ways, my time at Hillel was kind of like staying with a host family in a foreign country. They welcomed my curiosity and eagerly showed me their customs, but never forced them upon me. We simply co-existed, and it was great. Sometimes, âÄúshalomâÄù is all you really need to say. Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected]