Kenyon Hillel program manager Nate Gordon ’20 first became involved with Hillel as an attendee at Friday night Shabbat services. “I started coming to Hillel on Friday nights, and it became a place [where] I started to feel comfortable. It was something that I looked forward to every week,” Gordon said. “I wanted to be involved in meeting the Jewish community on campus.”
Kenyon Hillel was founded between 1984 and 1988. It serves Kenyon’s Jewish students, faculty and others interested in learning about the Jewish faith by providing a variety of opportunities — such as religious services, Torah study, bagel brunches and movie nights — to explore, study and celebrate Jewish life at Kenyon.
“It’s [the managers’] job to … organize weekly Shabbat events and … other Jewish activities so that Jewish students with very different backgrounds can find ways to celebrate their Judaism in different ways,” said Gordon, one of the two Hillel program managers.
Hillel’s program managers try to organize a wide range of events so that all members of Kenyon’s Jewish community feel welcome. “If there’s a few events throughout the year that a Jewish student can come to and say, ‘I enjoyed that, it makes me want to engage with Judaism more,’ then I think we’ve done something successful,” Gordon said.
Kenyon Hillel holds many of its events at the Rothenberg Hillel House, which was dedicated to the group as its on-campus headquarters on Oct. 24, 2014. Here Hillel hosts activities like Sunday bagel brunches, Thursday Torah study sessions and other community events like “Jewpardy.”
At the weekly Torah studies led by Jewish Chaplain and Director of Hillel Marc Bragin, members of both the Kenyon and greater Gambier communities meet to discuss the text.
The group of about eight to 10 people meets at Rothenberg Hillel House on Thursdays during Common Hour to engage not only with the Jewish perspective, but also with those of other faiths.
“We have a retired minister from Mount Vernon that comes [to Torah study] which is awesome, [because] we don’t have the monopoly on the Old Testament,” Bragin said. “Other people, other faiths read it. And it’s great to get a different perspective on how to read the Torah and how to read the Bible.”
In addition to Rothenberg Hillel House, there is also a Hillel North Campus Apartment (NCA) where, according to Bragin, Hillel receives “a whole different crowd.”
Hillel’s NCA allows the organization to reach out to Jewish students who may feel uncomfortable attending the events at Rothenberg Hillel House. “Even though everybody knows they can come to Hillel … sometimes people don’t want to come in the building because they don’t think they’re Jewish enough, which is not correct. And so sometimes we’ll have things at the NCA and we’ll get a whole different crowd [there],” Bragin said.
Hillel has given Kenyon College’s Jewish community a space to come together and study, explore, and share in their common faith. While it is a robust and energetic community today, Jewish students and faculty at Kenyon have not always been able to connect and engage with one another in this way.
It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that Jewish students felt welcomed into Kenyon fraternities. Before that, in order to build a sense of community among themselves, they created a “social group” called “Middle Kenyon.” Kenyon gave members of Middle Kenyon divisional housing in Old Kenyon, but it wasn’t until the founding of Kenyon Hillel in the 1980s that Jewish students really had a religious home at the College.
“The president of Hillel International … used to say Judaism is not a religion,” said Bragin. “And what he meant by that is that Judaism is something that connects a group of people … [who have a] common thread of being Jewish and … want to share that with other folks … build a foundation of friendship, and come together so that we are comforted by being together. And that’s really what we’re doing here.”
Elijah Newman contributed reporting.