Days of challah-baking and coat-collecting culminated in discussion, prayer and board games at Hillel JUC. The Nov. 15 gathering, which began with lighting 11 yahrzeit candles in memory of those murdered in last year’s attack at the Tree of Life building, marked the coming end of 11 days of kindness and a collective effort to reinforce the value of community.
Nearly a week and a half before students congregated in Oakland to memorialize, pray, discuss and eat a dinner of shawarma, falafel and lava cakes, Hillel JUC marked its fifth annual Hillel Makes a Difference Day on Nov. 3.
Through Hillel Makes a Difference Day, more than 120 Jewish students volunteered at 12 service projects across Pittsburgh, explained Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director and CEO.
The annual program is typically scheduled for the first Sunday in November, but while coordinating this year’s schedule, a Hillel JUC staffer recognized a calendrical connection.
When a colleague noticed that this year’s date for Hillel Makes a Difference Day was separated by 11 days from “the yahrzeit, we felt like it was beshert,” said Danielle Kranjec, Hillel JUC’s senior Jewish educator.
The 11-day period was “really important because it gives us a reminder of how we want to model the year both in and out of the Jewish community,” said Carolyn Brodie, president of Pitt Hillel.
During that span there were opportunities for Jewish and non-Jewish people to volunteer together or take on individual efforts, explained Dionna Dash, a University of Pittsburgh student studying communications and linguistics with a French minor.
Participating in these projects was a reminder that “you have allies and you have a personal power to help your community,” she said.
The 11-day period also was “a way for us to rectify some things as much as one can after the shooting,” said Brodie. There was an ability to “bring a little bit of good back into the world and create a movement for other students to do that as well.”
“Many of the events were community service related and hands-on and helped me a lot, like baking challah,” said Dash. “Physically being able to take something in your hands and create was a very cathartic way to work through grief.”
Students on campus experienced much last year and there was a great desire to act. Through these 11 days, Hillel JUC was able to provide a framework, explained Kranjek.
“I think everyone wants to be a good person, and there are universal values around being good, but what’s important for us is to show students a distinctively Jewish iteration of what it means to be good,” said Kranjek. This period, and particularly through Shabbat, was an opportunity to “show how Jewish values connect to universal values and how they’re distinct.”
Throughout the period, students bounded acts of kindness with Torah study or Jewish practice. Solidifying these endeavors was a special “Shabbat Together” on Nov. 15 and 16, organized by Hillel JUC.
Following the Nov. 15 yahrzeit candle lighting ceremony, services and dinner, which was attended by Pitt’s dean of students Kenyon Bonner and senior vice chancellor Kathy Humphrey, was “an oneg and board games in honor and remembrance of Mel Wax, z”l,” said Kranjek.
On Sat. Nov. 16, Carnegie Mellon University’s Jewish students similarly organized services, meals and study for the campus community.
Between Hillel Makes a Difference Day, the 11-day interim and Shabbat, there were many opportunities for pause and reflection, including a Havdalah ceremony on Nov. 9, held near the “Lest We Forget” exhibit at the University of Pittsburgh campus. The Saturday evening ceremony, which marked the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, was led by Hillel JUC student leaders and representatives of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
The generational span at the ceremony was a welcome reminder of community, explained Dash.
“It was the only event I’d been to through the 11 days where there was just a large presence of people from the Jewish community, and not just from Pitt, and I really did feel a connection to them. There was almost a second circle of people that understood what we’re going through,” she said. “I feel like a lot of the events throughout the 11 days have been super helpful, but you go and see the same people — all Pitt students or CMU students, all Jewish students. This had a different sense of community. It felt like we all went through this together. We all experienced the fear and the horror of Oct. 27 together, and I hadn’t appreciated how much the larger adult Jewish community experienced those feelings because I don’t have that much exposure to them.”
Whether it was through the Havdalah ceremony, Hillel Makes a Difference Day, Shabbat or the 11 days of kindness, the collective period afforded students a chance to “feel an even stronger sense of community and togetherness,” said Marcus.
For many students, the lead-up to the yahrzeit was particularly difficult.
“Being in community and being in Jewish community is a great antidote,” said Kranjek. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.