3/10/2016 Laura Newcomer

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This magazine article is part of Winter 2016 / Issue 84

ברוך הבא הביתה

 

From Sukkot to Shabbat, generations of F&M students find a home in Hillel

In the Jewish tradition, a sukkah represents the temporary dwellings inhabited by the Jewish people as they wandered the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt. A small shelter built of natural materials for the festival of Sukkot, it is a testament to the good fortune of having a place to live—and a reminder that members of the Jewish faith have not always been so lucky. It offers a place for people to come together and enjoy each other’s company, no matter the conditions of their lives beyond the sukkah’s walls.

Cindy Goodman-Leib ’86 was an F&M freshman when she first helped construct a sukkah. Earlier that year, she had arrived on campus—like many first-year students—hoping to find a home away from home. Now she was building one.

She didn’t know it at the time, but during her senior year one of the students constructing the sukkah by her side—Scott Leib ’87—would one day become her husband. They didn’t have classes together, and weren’t even in the same class year. But they were both drawn to Hillel—a national Jewish organization with a presence on college campuses throughout the country—and to the good food and company it offered to those students looking to deepen their understanding of the Jewish faith.

They bonded over cooperative kosher meals and homework sessions in the Hillel house’s common room. One day Scott worked up the courage to invite Cindy to his fraternity’s semi-formal. The rest, as they say, is history.

The couple got married in 1988. Since then, they've made a tradition out of building a sukkah in their yard each year during Sukkot, the festival celebrating the end to the Jewish community’s 40 years of wandering in the desert. Their two children, Elena and Josh, grew up sharing in the tradition. Each year the family invites their neighbors to join them for meals inside this temporary dwelling—another home away from home.

When Cindy and Scott return to campus, their primary destination is Hillel. Some things have changed in the decades since the couple first met; for starters, the organization is now housed in the Klehr Center for Jewish Life and is staffed by multiple professionals, as opposed to the grassroots student leadership that characterized their time at Hillel. But the values Hillel promotes have remained the same for the 50 years that the organization has had a presence on campus.

“Over 50 years of Hillel [at F&M], the sense of community and belonging has stayed the same,” Goodman-Leib says. “At Hillel, students find a cultural connection at a critical time in their lives—a time when they are living on their own, separate from their families… learning, searching, developing, and making a transition to a campus environment that encourages independence. Here they find a powerful connection to Judaism and a sense of belonging.”

Goodman-Leib should know. In addition to having been a student leader at Hillel, she’s now a board member for the Klehr Center for Jewish Life, co-chair (with Bruce Levin ’88) of F&M Hillel’s 50th anniversary planning committee, and the parent of a student who’s involved in Hillel, Josh Leib ’19.

Recently, when she returned to campus for a Klehr Center board meeting, Goodman-Leib was struck by a photo on the center’s wall. It showed her son, gathered together with other students, helping to build a sukkah.

 

Shabbat the Hillel Way

That multiple generations of Franklin & Marshall students have found a place of belonging within Hillel is no accident.

“The students who come to Hillel are trying to explore,” says Ralph Taber, associate dean of the College and director of the Klehr Center. “Hillel provides a safe space for that to occur without judgment.”

The cornerstone of this inclusive programming is Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. For years, Hillel at F&M has recognized this Sabbath by hosting dinners every Friday night.

“We try to make it both fun and enjoyable, and we also try to make it authentic to the beliefs,” says Taber. “But at the same time, we work to provide space for somebody who was not raised in a home with those rituals to be part of it. We encourage them to learn from us.”

This inclusive approach has met with demonstrated success, as students, professors, administrators and local community members come together to enjoy each other’s company and good food each Friday night. “Many times we overflow the dining area,” says Taber. “Some weeks there are 40; some weeks there are more than 100.”

In addition to showing up as hungry diners, students play a role in making the weekly event a success. “The students are partners with us,” says Taber. “They help make the challah bread. We ask them to make a donation to charity or bring a non-perishable food item to each dinner. We don’t charge, but we want them to give something back.”

In addition, one student is asked to present the d'var Torah (a short, thematic teaching drawn from the Torah) each week. A few years ago, one memorable teaching—on the topic of love—was attended by College Trustee Susan Kline Klehr ’73, P’12, and her husband, Lenny Klehr ’72, P’12.

“It is amazing that this person did this,” says Klehr. “She didn’t do it for a class; she didn’t do it for a grade. She did it for her community.”

It’s a community that extends beyond the walls of the Shabbat dining room, and even beyond F&M’s campus. “The attachment of the kids and their parents to the program—even after they graduate—is unbelievable,” says Klehr.

While attending Hillel’s programming, members of the organization meet their spouses, make lifelong friends, and often bring friends who may not be Jewish, leading to greater mutual understanding and the finding of commonality. They connect at Shabbat dinners, bagel brunches, social events, and educational offerings such as the study of texts or conversations about Holocaust remembrance or social justice.

The campus organization plans to ramp up its already robust programming in the fall of 2016, which represents the 50th year that Hillel has had a presence at F&M. Some of the anniversary celebrations will be held during October’s Homecoming & Family Weekend. Others—such as Shabbat dinners, lectures, a book reading, a dance concert and film screenings—will take place throughout the upcoming year.

Fundamental to Hillel’s programming and success is the building in which the organization is now housed: the Klehr Center for Jewish Life, which was erected in 2008. Susan Klehr and Lenny Klehr served as lead donors for the project. The building’s architects solicited opinions from students as they developed their designs. “The students said they wanted a place that feels like home,” says Susan Klehr.

“When you go in there, students are lounging on the sofa, watching TV, working on the floor, baking challah. They all come together for meals, and it’s just lovely,” says Klehr. “It’s a warm place that speaks to a lot of different people. There’s an openness to it that I’m just so proud of.”

In addition to the lounge space, the building features a classroom and a multipurpose room. Each week, more than 200 students pass through the center’s doors. “People come to a space that they think is a Jewish space, but it’s a community space also,” says Taber. “It exposes others to us and us to others in the community. In the process, it fosters greater understanding.”

 

The Nurturing Soil of Hillel

Shanni Davidowitz ’14 arrived on campus nearly three decades after Cindy Goodman-Leib built her first sukkah. Like Goodman-Leib, she was searching for a sense of belonging in a new place, and she soon found herself engaged in Hillel.

“I was drawn to the welcoming community and homey feel that I found at Hillel,” says Davidowitz. "It seemed to immediately serve as a home away from home for me.”

Davidowitz soon took on the role of community service chair on Hillel’s student board. She coordinated a variety of service projects, from visiting nursing homes, to volunteering at local elementary schools, to serving with Habitat for Humanity. And she made many strong friendships. "These were friends with whom I attended Shabbat dinners, did community service, and spent sleepless nights in the Klehr Center while studying for finals, or just watching movies near the fireplace.”

Specifically, Hillel hopes for every Jewish student at F&M to commit to an enduring Jewish life.

“We judge our success in terms of how students are living their lives [after graduation],” says Taber. “It doesn’t mean they have to be a religious person. It means they have to be a conscious Jew and contribute to society, do good work, and be a good person through the lens of Jewish identity.”

After its first 50 years, the impact of Hillel can be seen in big and small ways, in students and alumni, in parents and community members, on campus and beyond.

“Students go on to become rabbis, or presidents of their congregations, or they raise their children in a Jewish household,” Taber says. “Or they go home during breaks and make challah, serve in a soup kitchen, or make a point of going to synagogue. Hillel is important to them. And in one way or another, they’re giving back.”

When people who have been part of Hillel at F&M find themselves back together, says Taber, “There’s a noticeable kinship. There’s a connection.”

You might say it feels like coming home. 

“We try to make it both fun and enjoyable, and we also try to make it authentic to the beliefs. But at the same time, we work to provide space for somebody who was not raised in a home with those rituals to be part of it. We encourage them to learn from us.”
Ralph Taber
Ralph Taber
Associate Dean of the College and Director of the Klehr Center
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