This is a guest post by Rachel Himelhoch, a sophomore at the University of Michigan who also serves as Engagement Coordinator for U of M’s HuJews on Campus club.
Learn more about HuJews on Campus here.
Where does a Humanistic Jewish girl go to temple after moving to college? During my first semester at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I wasn’t totally sure. Humanistic Judaism was always a huge part of my life growing up. Every Sunday, I went to a youth group to learn about and celebrate our culture and beliefs. However, after I moved away, I lost my community and rarely had time to participate in Jewish traditions.
Fortunately, SHJ executive director Paul Golin reached out and encouraged me to start my own community. I was honored to help pilot a new program called HuJews on Campus, a club for college students to celebrate their Jewish heritage while remaining true to their secular beliefs. Leading the club has helped me stay connected to my Jewish heritage, culture, and community while away at college. As the club grows, I hope to foster the same connection with other students.
Reflecting on our first semester, I am so proud of all that we accomplished and cannot wait to get back at it in January. HuJew’s first official event was a celebration of Rosh Hashanah. My Jewish roommate Becca, a secular humanist at heart, and I made matzah ball soup, splurged on some Challah from Zingermans, and prepared apples and honey. I gave a brief spiel on the traditions of Rosh Hashanah as quite a few non-Jewish and newly Jewish friends joined our dinner party and then led a humanistic service.
My favorite part of the evening was the Humanistic Tashlich that I was piloting. A traditional Tashlich is done to cleanse a person of their sins before the new year begins. People throw bread or pieces of paper into a river and their sins are washed away. But because I am secular and an environmentalist, I bought dissolvable paper and had everyone write their regrets of their past year on their sheet. After everyone was finished, we got to watch it all dissolve in a bowl of water. We started the Jewish New Year off fresh! I think it is such a great example of the importance of taking care of the human need for spiritual growth in a secular manner.
For our Sukkot event, we worked with the UMICH Hillel. Our HuJews club volunteered to make bookmarks for Trunk or Treats for kids in need. We stopped to eat at our favorite local restaurant, Mr. Spots, and I gave a short service at our table. I planned my services using Here is Our Light, a collection of Humanistic Jewish liturgy. Having the book has been a real help in involving club members in the more emotional and spiritual aspects of our meetings. Plus, I can only remember so much Hebrew from Sunday school.
Our latest event was a Spooky Shabbat. I was inspired by our sister program at Sarah Lawerence College, which put on a Halloween-themed Shabbat. On the Friday before Halloween, we gathered in costumes for more matzo ball soup, black and white cookies (with spider web designs), and painted spooky designs on Shabbos candles.
At the end of the year, I began working with the UMICH Hillel to try to get our club more involved with the larger Jewish community on campus. The Hillel rabbi and the student board were welcoming and enthusiastic about having more Jewish leaders interested in joining the community. In November, HuJews officially became a part of the Hillel community, marking what may be the first ever affiliation between Hillel and a Jewish humanist group.
I am looking forward to the next semester and cannot wait to share Humanistic Judaism with those who normally would not have the chance to learn about our community. In January, I will be joining a few other students to represent the UMICH Hillel at a Jewish Leadership Retreat. This will be another opportunity to introduce Humanistic Judaism to other groups and to add perspective to the state-wide retreat. I am also truly excited to learn more about other branches of Judaism and to help strengthen the understanding of Humanistic Judaism among the greater Jewish community.
I believe that our club can be a model for how Humanistic Judaism can become a part of the greater Jewish community. Humanistic Judaism is a great option for the younger generation. So many Jewish and non-Jewish teens and young adults of Gen Z value critical thinking, question the existence of a higher power, and care very deeply about the people in their communities. Humanistic Judaism has given me what they seek. In my experience, Humanistic Judaism has allowed me to put my thoughts and feelings into words, as well as inspire me to take action and speak up for what I believe in. It is important that college students, like myself, have a community where they can reflect on the world and themselves even if they no longer, or never had, connected with a high power. HuJews on Campus is that space for my group and me. We are so grateful to have the club and cannot wait for what will come next!