Finding Community, Identity and Direction Through Jewish Tradition

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Temple University senior Sarah Wittman at Hillel Center for Jewish Life.

The day Sarah Wittman arrived on the Temple University campus as a freshman, she set out in search of something fun to do. She wanted an activity to help her make friends — like-minded people who might help her feel secure while adjusting to college life. “Something that would make the school seem smaller,” Sarah remembers. She found herself heading toward a building that held a tug of familiarity.

“My very first day at Temple, I went to Hillel,” says 21-year-old Sarah, now a senior, as she flashes a bright smile. “And I’ve been going back every day since.”

Sarah didn’t quite expect this Jewish journey. Rather, it evolved over the course of her young adulthood, nurtured by her interfaith parents and exposure to Jewish tradition, with help from Jewish Federation-supported programs along the way. And her journey has yielded far more than fun and friends. Sarah has discovered an authentic connection to a wider community, as well as a resonant sense of belonging within Judaism itself.

“It’s been incredible for me to really reconnect with my Judaism through Hillel,” Sarah says. “Judaism has let me see myself a little bit better. It’s let me better understand who I am, and what I want in life.”

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Raised by a Catholic dad and a Jewish mom in the Montgomery County suburb of North Wales, Sarah and her older sister were brought up Jewish — even though Sarah had little understanding of what that meant. Sarah’s fondest Jewish memories growing up are of visiting her maternal grandparents each year for Yom Kippur, when her bubbe would greet her with big hugs, then ply her with bagels and lox. “So my associations for that holiday are all about warmth: my bubbe and my favorite food,” Sarah says. Other than that, however, Judaism felt foreign.

But Sarah’s parents encouraged her to attend Jewish overnight camp at age 12, and the experience was pivotal for her. Then-shy Sarah had figured Camp Harlam would simply be a chance to make a few Jewish pals to invite to her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. Instead, she had the summer of her life, making close friendships against the backdrop of shared Jewish experiences. Like on Friday nights, when the kids dressed in white and walked hand-in-hand up the hill to Kabbalat Shabbat services; then afterward have a raucous song session complete with guitars, banging on tables and everyone smiling until their cheeks ached.

Sarah went to Camp Harlam for five summers. She also took a NFTY teen tour to Israel, where she was astounded to realize how very Jewish life was there — and how connected she felt as a result. By the time Sarah arrived at college, she sensed where her first stop would be.

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At Hillel, Sarah discovered a place brimming with fun, and where — much to her relief — she always felt welcome. “They’re not looking for a specific type of Jew,” she says. “We want every Jewish student to be able to come to Hillel, whether they’re religious, or cultural, or have nothing to do with Judaism and they just want to learn.”

She has sampled everything and keeps coming back: to Shabbat services, movie nights, game nights, a Rosh Hashanah new year’s party, Yom Kippur break fast. She and her friends do JRA food distributions, driving up to the Northeast warehouse to pack boxes of donated food. She helped plan Israel Week this past spring. She has become more and more intensely involved with Jewish learning. All the while, Sarah has made close friends. “Hillel is a true community — a place for all of us to come, feel safe, and question life and religion, a place to make friends for a lifetime,” she says. “They do whatever they can to help you grow. It’s a home away from home.”

Hilllel, Birthright, summer camps and JRA are some of the many programs the Jewish Federation supports in order to create thriving, vibrant communities in which everyone can partake in Jewish tradition. “Jewish Federation has impacted my life in so many ways. My life wouldn’t be the same!” Sarah says. She wants to give back — to be a steward of the traditions she holds dear. Sarah now serves as Hillel’s Student Board vice president, and so thoroughly enjoys being behind the scenes that she has changed her major to adult organizational development, in the hopes of working for a Jewish organization someday.

With her deepened connection to Judaism, Sarah also returned to Israel last year with Birthright, along with her sister, and saw the country from a different perspective: full of questions and profound appreciation. One night, while camping in the Negev, everyone was asked to step outside their tents and meditate in silence. As Sarah surveyed the desert landscape ringed by mountains and blanketed by stars, she felt overwhelmed by a picture in her mind: that of her grandpop and bubbe, smiling down. “I was thinking, ‘They must be so happy that I’m here with my sister,’” Sarah recalls. “‘We’re in this beautiful place, this wide-open desert.’ I felt so happy and so connected. And I started to cry.”

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