Exploring joy in UA Hillel’s sukkah

“When a person is happy, gloom and suffering stand aside. Yet greater still is to gather courage to actually pursue gloom, and to introduce it into the joy, such that the gloom itself turns into joy.” – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Likutei Moharan, Part II 23:1:3-4

This week I led a text study in UA Hillel’s beautiful Sukkah. Because Sukkot is our Z’man Simchateinu, our time of rejoicing, I decided we would learn about joy. But it’s not so simple to explore joy. Not in the midst of the Delta surge. Not with college students who contend with enormous academic, social, and mental health pressures. Not at a time when mask and vaccine mandates—which Hillel proudly enforces even as we pray for a safer future—separate us, one from the other.

Greek Jewish Society members erect the UA Hillel sukkah

So I brought sources—from the Torah to 21st century—on Jewish joy (and, thanks to Mary Oliver, on joy in general). But the texts also talked about gloom, about how to hold competing emotions at once, about what happens to the soul when a person is pressured to feel joy but just doesn’t.

I also changed the time of the session in response to student feedback. Unfortunately, the time change alert didn’t reach all students, and some showed up to learn just as the first group was winding down.

So I led a second session. Here’s the really amazing part: some students from the first session stayed for the second session, and both text studies brimmed with vulnerability, insight, wisdom, and new ideas that I hadn’t considered. I may have facilitated the sessions, but the students were the true teachers.

This is what happens at UA Hillel day-in and day-out. Students come with their ideas, their energy, their enthusiasm, their doubt, their conflicts, and their loneliness, and they find solace, inspiration, camaraderie, ideas to adopt and reject, worthy debate partners, and bone-deep friendships among their peers.

The text study was just one of dozens of programs that have unfolded in the past weeks, including prayer services, Jewish learning, an Israeli movie night, a shakshuka feast, an event to craft pots for the plants students can adopt here, an explore-your-identities night, committee meetings, game sessions, yoga, a grief circle, a huge Shabbat celebration at a sorority house, and more. It’s a stunning diversity of content and access points, and we’re getting ready to launch a Jewish Learning Fellowship, a cooking class, weekly drop-in ice cream dates with a local rabbi, and outdoor activities that get our students into our beautiful desert.

At the same time, we reach only a (marvelous, inspirational) small core of Jewish students on campus. Part of our work in the coming months and, yes, years, will be to constantly remain in a learning stance, fail forward, and iterate myriad ideas as we continue to refine our value proposition and figure out how to make pluralistic Jewish community truly accessible to a much wider group of Wildcats.

So, just as our students explored seemingly conflicting mindsets in our sukkah this week, we hold the responsibility of exceeding the needs of the students we already serve at the same time as we seek out the students we’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting.

When I sit at a table full of students working through ideas that are thousands of years old and finding the relevance in their modern lives, I know our growth—powered by ancient Jewish technologies and cutting-edge communal practices—will be fueled by the brilliant students themselves.