Rutgers Hillel’s Jewish Peoplehood Project
By Lillie Hannon, Class of 2017
When I was first offered a spot in Rutgers Hillel’s Jewish Peoplehood Project, I wasn’t at all sure what I was going to be getting into. It was in its first year, and we were the guinea pigs for this new class. The first thing that comes to mind when you think about that kind of an opportunity is an “easy A” — a class where you don’t have to do much because, with the leaders just trying things out, there wouldn’t be too much to do on your part.
How wrong I was.
What was so unique about this particular project was that we weren’t the guinea pigs, as I stated earlier. And I don’t think that we were ever going to be. When I stepped into the class for the first time, a small room in the Hillel building, I was met by a group of Jewish students of all different backgrounds. Each person came with a different view of their religion influenced by every factor in their life — family, sexual orientation, belief system, nationality and so much more. We were met by our teacher, Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, who is one of the three Rabbis at Rutgers Hillel. And the first thing that we learned was that the class was not going to be an experiment run by him to see how we learned; it was going to be a class where we learned from each other. And that was simultaneously the most interesting as well as the hardest part.
Listening to others talk about how they viewed Judaism, no matter what their perspective, was fascinating. We never all agreed with one another, but as time went on, we began to see how all the diverse thoughts made up one large Jewish community. My own Jewish journey was a strange one, I thought. Growing up with a Reform Jewish mother and an agnostic (formerly Catholic) father, I was always taught that whatever we believed was okay — as long as we stuck to the customs and values we’d been taught. Mainly, family will always come first — something I began to associate with Judaism (as much as I associated Judaism with food). And so I did just that. I came in as an atheist-Jew, as I called it, cherishing every single thing that I’d learned. As I finish this program, I still leave as an atheist-Jew. But this does not mean I haven’t changed.
I went in curious about my heritage. And now, from the stories and experiences I’ve heard from others, learning more isn’t just a thing I want to do. It’s something I feel I have to do. Being in a community of strong, passionate Jewish leaders makes you realize just what an amazing community we can create once we find one another. I left that class with a sense of meaning, a community of friends and memories that I will never forget.
The Jewish Peoplehood Project has been an incredible experience for me. I went in with limited knowledge about who I was as a Jew. I came out as part of a Jewish community. And, strangely enough, that is what I’ve learned being a Jew means. It means family, shared memories, and a sense of security because, no matter what, you know someone is there for you. Some of us may not leave with urges to be more religious. And some may not leave knowing who they really are yet. But in the end, that’s okay. What I’ve learned from this is that we are not alone. As long as we know where we’ve been, what we believe in, and what it all means, there will always be others who are ready to lend a hand and draw you back into the community that we’ve been creating since so long ago.
This class is by no means easy. Nor is it something where you can merely sit back and listen. But if you are willing to put your whole self out there and are willing to learn more, it may just be one of the most fruitful experiences you’ll ever have. I encourage everyone interested to become a part of the Jewish Peoplehood Project as soon as they can. You won’t regret it.
The Jewish Peoplehood Project just finished its inaugural semester, led by Rabbi Heath Watenmaker. Together with the Rutgers Hillel staff, Rabbi Heath developed the curriculum and secured funding for this groundbreaking educational opportunity for Jewish students at Rutgers.
Over the course of 10 weeks, students from diverse Jewish and demographic backgrounds came together in the Jewish Peoplehood Project and explored basic Jewish concepts, then delved deeper into conversations about Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.
Please support Rutgers Hillel as we help our students find meaningful connections to Judaism and strengthen their Jewish identities.