For the past year, I have been thinking about what it means to live the values of hesed and kehillah, kindness and community, in Jewish life on campus. In previous years, I have often felt that tzedek, or justice, was the most resonant value for students on the campuses served by Hillel Jewish University Center. However, since Oct. 27, 2018, there has been a shift in the lens through which we view our work.
Immediately following the attack, our Jewish students held all the range of emotions one can probably imagine. The vast majority of them had never been inside the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building and had never prayed with any of the three congregations so cruelly torn apart that day. Yet in many ways the students, as did so many Jewish people around our city and country, felt that they themselves were under attack.
They wanted to help, but did not know how. They wanted to mourn, but did not know how. They wanted to be seen, as Jews, on campus, but they did not really even know what that meant. They wanted to stand in solidarity with the broader Jewish community, but in many cases did not have the personal connections or experiences to make that happen. Expressing hesed and kehillah, both internally on campus and as a bridge to Squirrel Hill, has provided a way for students to embrace their identities as Jewish adults, and to come into ownership with a positive connection to their tradition.
To give you a glimpse into the lives of our students, and their longing to do hesed and be in kehillah, let me share a story:
On Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, I headed to Hillel JUC around 10 p.m. As I made my way to the third floor of our building, I was overwhelmed by the smell of freshly baked challah filling the building.
I found a small group of student leaders boxing the last of hundreds upon hundreds of loaves of challah.
That night nearly 300 student volunteers — Jewish and non-Jewish — had come together to braid and bake, resulting in 575 loaves of fresh, warm, kosher bread.
By the time I arrived, only the student leaders remained to finish the counting, boxing up and sending out a physical representation of connection to our Jewish tradition, an edible symbol of what it means to do kindness for someone by feeding both physically and spiritually. Having themselves experienced a few hours of comfort in community, in the presence of those with shared values and a shared vision to do good in the world, they wanted to then pass that moment of connection with families who might use the challah at their Shabbat table.
The love that those loaves represented proved to be one of the most powerful, tangible and deeply Jewish responses that we helped to create at Hillel JUC. One of our most active, student-led groups is our Challah for Hunger group, which bakes challah weekly, does anti-hunger advocacy work, and sells their challah loaves with all proceeds donated to anti-hunger nonprofits. In the immediate wake of the attack, the student president at the time, Emma Shapiro, posted a Google sheet and asked people to sponsor a loaf of challah for “a family in Squirrel Hill” and organized an event much larger than the weekly baking, calling it “Braiding Together Against Hate.”
She shared with me, “Our first response among all the student leaders was that we have a platform and we wanted to do something to help. We immediately did our best to combine the quantitative stuff like money and fundraising with something so qualitative like the love of spreading challah … we truly baked a difference.”
My experience of helping to deliver hundreds of loaves of challah baked by our students for the community has shown me that the most healing way for Jewish students to respond to Jewish tragedy is through deeply Jewish action. Positive action, rooted in the ancient values of our people and the universal values that humanity shares, has the power for transformation. Symbolic actions on their own can feel good in the moment, but the symbolic power of challah goes beyond and becomes the embodiment of the thing itself: in this case, kindness, community and a connection uniting our campus community to those in Squirrel Hill. pjc
Danielle Kranjec is Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.