A small group of University of Richmond students gathered in the kitchen of their rabbi's home Friday night for the first retreat organized by UR Hillel, the Jewish student organization on campus. They worked the secret ingredient, Halloween candy, into their replication of an Iron Chef dessert competition to the soundtrack of a Pandora playlist, UR Hillel member, Jamie Bieber said. The winning group crafted a cake with whipped-cream frosting and Three Musketeers bars blended into the batter.
At the same time, students were blending into a comfortable sense of a Jewish community, Bieber said. "It was a great atmosphere," she said.
The purpose of Hillel is to provide a community for Jewish students on campus, senior Josh Ginsberg, president of UR Hillel, said. The addition of the retreat to the Hillel calendar was one of many recent changes for UR Hillel in creating such a community. This is the first year that the organization has had a rabbi on campus, serving as part of the organization, Ginsberg said.
Rabbi Andrew Goodman said the retreat had been structured to follow UR Hillel's new five-part approach to Judaism. Students at the retreat focused on study, ritual, culture, social action and Israel, a multi-faceted approach that allows the religion to resonate with all Jewish students, Goodman said. On the day of the retreat, the students connected to Israel by attending the International Month dinner on campus, followed by a Shabbat ritual in celebration of the Sabbath, Goodman said.
"Next, in the morning, we looked at texts to explore the responsibility of social justice in Judaism as well as at UR," Goodman said. The discussion of social justice was led by Kim Dean, a representative from UR Downtown, he said. The morning ended with the students developing a mission statement for the new version of UR Hillel, as well as identifying ways to get involved with service projects and partnerships with Richmond's Jewish Family Services, Goodman said.
Students who volunteer through Jewish Family Services work with community members such as the elderly, Ginsberg said. But the service is not limited to helping Jews in need. Although the organization is financed by Jewish community members, 80 percent of its clients are not Jewish, Ginsberg said.
UR Hillel members also mingle with those outside of the Jewish religion on campus. The group meets in the Wilton Center every Tuesday night, Ginsberg said. But every other Tuesday is "Torah Tuesday," and on these nights, the Jewish students are often joined by members of Kairos, a campus Christian organization, Ginsberg said.
The two groups unite in discussions of overlapping themes such as ethics, despite their differing approaches to religion, he said. "It's a good awkwardness," Ginsberg said. This link to Kairos, which is also part of the new agenda of UR Hillel, opens students' eyes to diverse opinions, Bieber said.
Outside of structured meetings, one of the club's day-to-day purposes is to offer Jewish students a sense of community by providing the comfort of a familiar tradition and culture, Goodman said.
"I think that every person, Jewish or not, has an extraordinary amount of independence when they leave their home of origin and are living in a university atmosphere," he said. "Each student has to wrestle with what they value, if and how it differs from the values of their parents and religions, and the demands being placed on them in college."
Bieber said it was strange that students did not seem to want to speak out as Jewish members of the campus community. She and other UR Hillel members want people to be themselves and not have to question who to tell about their religious affiliation, she said. "We're all equal," she said.
Joining UR Hillel opened possibilities for her exploration of Judaism, Bieber said. "We just want to make change and become a successful organization," she said.
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"Since I started here," Goodman said, "the most important message I have been trying to convey to students, Jewish and not, is that religion is an important element of many people's lives. I want everyone to know that they should feel able and encouraged to express their religion in whatever way that matters to them."
Contact staff writer Katie Toussaint at firstname.lastname@example.org
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