An Abnormal Story of Changing Directions in College

Students in the library studying together
Students in the library studying together

"I did it because my friends are doing it! I want to fit in, but also it's something that I want."

I've used this justification with my parents, as well as with friends, to try and explain myself a little bit.

I should add that I'm not talking about drugs here. Or alcohol. Or any kind of promiscuous or illegal activity. I'm talking about Judaism. I think I might be the only person to use that phrase in trying to explain how I started becoming more religious in college.

On the first week of my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, I went to Shabbat dinner at Hillel. I went with my roommate -- another Jewish girl whom I had known for a few years -- and we felt lost. Both of us went to Jewish summer camp, and were moderately knowledgeable about Judaism and Shabbat, but the social scene was not our place. Everyone seemed to know each other, and all of the boys were wearing kippot -- a marker that these people were simply on another level of religiosity than either of us. We ate or challah, our matzo ball soup, our chicken, and we left deciding that our forthcoming Friday evenings would be better spent at a frat party.

Months passed, the football season came and went, and I missed being a part of a Jewish community. Most of my friends were Jewish, and I ate at the dining hall in Hillel a lot, but didn't feel a part of anything. Later in the semester, I ended up joining the student board and soon after the new year I signed up for an extra curricular class on Judaism through the Meor program.

The next few months were a strange trial period for me. I decided to open my mind to this different kind of Judaism that I was seeing around me: Jews who were fully integrated into the normal world, yet deeply religious. At this point, the majority of my closest friends were Orthodox Jews simply because we took the same classes together the semester before, and I recognized them from around Hillel. Here was an applicable form of Judaism that was both appealing and modern. It was something that I could apply to my life as opposed to changing my life to accommodate it. I decided at some point that semester that I would keep Shabbat -- in my mind, the next step that I personally could be taking in an effort to improve my religiosity.

In keeping Shabbat for over a half of a year, I have gained so much more than 25 hours a week off the grid. Those 25 hours become a sanctuary in which I can forgo homework and studying and take time to have meaningful conversations with people for hours on end, get a good night's sleep without feeling guilty about wasting time, and read non-textbook books. I sincerely cannot say what kind of stress-induced illnesses I would be facing by now if Shabbat had not made its way into my life. Even if it started out as a simple curiosity and a way to fit in, it has become an integral part of my identity, my week, and my mindset. And who said peer pressure was always bad?