Through the Looking Glass: Finding community at Dartmouth College Hillel

by Sam Libby | 8/13/15 8:03pm


Libby writes about finding unexpected community at Dartmouth College Hillel.

by Kate Herrington and Kate Herrington / The Dartmouth

I never thought I would be involved in religious life anywhere — much less in college. Growing up as a Conservative Jew while attending a Christian high school, I hated displays of organized religion. Even though chapel services tried to be inclusive, recognizing the various Jewish (and other faiths’) holidays, I still felt out of place. At religious school, I never felt intellectually engaged and felt ostracized by my peers, who attended different schools. While I still maintained a set of Jewish values fostered by my parents, I did not find a group of Jewish peers to whom I could relate.

Coming to Dartmouth, I wanted to have the full Dartmouth experience. After Dartmouth Outing Club First-Year Trips, I wanted to hang out with everyone I had met and enjoy “Camp Dartmouth” before classes began. But Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, stood in the way, occurring before orientation. I could not feasibly go back to Dallas, so for the first time, I spent the Holidays away from my family. Feeling alone, I went to Hillel for the first time to search for a community. I was greeted warmly, but feeling new, alone and out of place, I did not feel at home just yet. Throughout freshman fall, I attended Hillel events but never really felt engaged with my Jewish classmates. I began teaching Hebrew school to the Upper Valley Jewish Community, but I never really interacted with my fellow Dartmouth student teachers and I left right after school let out.

My experience changed dramatically during the winter. Living in Bissell residence hall, next door to the Roth Center for Jewish Life, I quickly found a comfortable place to study in the Roth Center library. Through casual interactions with fellow Jewish students, I began to see Hillel less as a synagogue and more as a community. My involvement with my peers in this casual setting began to transform my Dartmouth experience, and for the first time, I made friends with Jews who were similar to me. So much of my time at Dartmouth has revolved around Hillel, as the organization and the Jewish community revitalized my vision of my Dartmouth career.

When I became Hillel president this past spring, I wanted to give back to the organization and the people who gave so much to me. Planning Passover and other Jewish holidays, I wanted to be sure everyone felt comfortable, engaged and religiously and spiritually fulfilled. Organizing other Hillel events, I wanted to ensure that the space remained inclusive to people of all backgrounds.

Religion was never a factor for my involvement in Hillel. My personal religious journey has varied throughout my life, but I view Judaism less as a faith and more as a way of life. My experience at Dartmouth reflects this perspective, as I remain involved at Hillel both socially and religiously.

When I think about faith, I think about personal discovery and engagement, rather than top-down direction. Dartmouth has allowed me to develop my own sense of Judaism, giving me the opportunity to adjust my practices as my experience changes. The Hillel I have grown to love has given me more than just a building for religious services or a space to study. The people for whom Hillel matters tremendously shape my Dartmouth career and I hope that my tenure as president has helped Hillel maintain the open, inclusive, diverse and supportive family that opened its arms to me when I most needed it.