Loyola’s Hillel ignites student’s passion for Judaism

Loyola's Hillel student organization helps Jewish students on campus connect with their identity. Anton Raath//Flickr

Never in a million years did I think I would become more connected with my Judaism. I came from a household of Russian/Ukrainian parents where religion was almost non-existent because of the restrictions on Jews in the former Soviet Union. We celebrated Passover and Hanukkah once when I was 5. I remember celebrating New Year’s as a child, with a tree and the ever-symbolic Grandfather Frost, common non-religious Russian traditions. I found it hard to explain how I lost the little faith I was exposed to. Once during an interview, I was asked, “How did you get interested in becoming more involved with Judaism?” My response was usually: “I am a communal Jew.” However, I found myself blurting out, “I lost Judaism, and now I found it here at Loyola.”

Not many people know about my past. In fact, I refused to talk about it once I got to Loyola. I transferred here in the fall of 2013 — was it important to really talk about my story? Now more than ever, I think college is the time to talk about one’s story. From my birth until the age of 10, I was raised in a emotionally and mentally abusive home.

My father subjected my entire family to cruel and traumatizing situations. I recall as a child praying and pleading for all the issues to end. I prayed every single day, but nothing ever happened. At such a young age I questioned why God would let bad things happen to good people. I didn’t hear a response, and I lost my faith. It wasn’t until I was about 10 years old that my father kicked my mother and me out of our home. In my mind I thought, “Was this a miracle or God’s way of punishing me?”

I reached adolescence feeling that Judaism was never a part of my identity growing up. I had such a negative perception about religion, and I loathed the sight of any practice. I naively thought to myself, “Why would they do this? Nobody is listening!”

Fast forward 11 years and I am now the vice president of Hillel at Loyola, the Jewish student organization on campus. How? Honestly, it was all on accident. I walked into Hillel because of the invitation of a friend of mine, and the rest is history. I felt welcomed, and I was able to participate in Jewish holidays, cultural events and communal activities. My curiosity got the best of me, and after all the invitations from people in Hillel, I decided to come to a Shabbat dinner. I felt uncomfortable at first, but once I let my barriers down and encountered each ritual with an open mind, I became more comfortable, and I fell in love with the Jewish community. As I became more involved in Hillel, I began to really understand the importance of upholding my religious identity.

Hillel has been nothing but beneficial for me. I began my position as vice president in the fall thinking about ways to improve Hillel’s visibility on campus, and I ended up focusing most of my time building a sense of community among the students. They come from all backgrounds and, at the end of the day, they are the reason I do what I do. Each Hillelian possesses amazing tenacity and spirit toward Jewish life. They have made me nothing but proud. Sitting in Hillel and seeing the soon-to-be future leaders and the freshmen having fun makes me hopeful for the future — a future without anti-Semitism, a future where the Jewish population at Loyola will no longer be just 1 percent, but most importantly a future where we become more than just classmates. We become a family.

Twenty-seven years ago, Loyola  reached out to the Hillels of Illinois to begin a collaboration and develop a relationship. Loyola, wanting to promote a diverse community that promoted mutual respect and knowledge, and encouraging a broad understanding of faith as a part of a transformative educational mission, brought Hillel onto this campus. This bold initiative for more diversity is one of Loyola’s greatest strengths, which all the while supports religious and cultural pluralism. I applaud the university for reaching out and attempting to diversify the campus community.

I am proud of my efforts to bring our small yet strong Jewish community together. These students are worth all the hard work, and seeing them experience their faith reminds me that because I found my faith again at Loyola, I gained something that can never be taken away from me — a stronger cohesive identity. As I reflect on my time at the university, I can only thank Loyola for everything it has already done to foster a Jewish community here, and I am confident Loyola will focus on its recruitment efforts to insure that Jewish life will continue to thrive at this community.

Adam Mogilevsky is a contributing columnist

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