Students find strong community at Bowdoin Hillel
April 7, 2023
“Raucous.” “Awesome.” “Lots of food and lots of complaining.”
These are just a few of the words that Lia Kornmehl ’23, Bowdoin Hillel’s co-president, used to describe Hillel’s Passover celebration, one of many Jewish traditions that the club celebrates each year.
Providing resources, educational events and social programming throughout the year, Bowdoin Hillel acts as a hub for Jewish students on campus. Beyond this, the club also acts as a space for non-Jewish students to learn about Judaism and participate in festivities.
“I think that Hillel is at its best when it’s a really fulfilling space for Jewish people but also a really open space that people want to come to with their friends and see what it is like,” Kornmehl said.
The club has hosted a number of special events throughout the year including celebrations for the High Holidays in the fall, a screening of “Fiddler on the Roof” and a plant-potting and painting event for Tu Bishvat. In addition, it also hosts Shabbat services every Friday. All of the club’s events are open to the whole Bowdoin community.
A new tradition from this academic year that Kornmehl and others hope to continue is the B’nai Mitzvah, which began as a chance for a friend to make up for never having a Bat Mitzvah. But more friends joined, and it soon became a big affair. The event was the first of its kind at the College, having included both a traditional service and a classic after-party reminiscent of the kinds of receptions that Kornmehl and other Hillel members experienced when they and many of their friends were Mitzvahed at the more typical age of 12 or 13.
“It was an absolutely incredible moment because people had their families come, and it wasn’t just contained. They read from the Torah, they learned the songs and prayers and we had a huge party,” Kornmehl said. “It made me really happy because there’s no time limit regarding when you start your Jewish experience.”
Kornmehl explained that there were many tears shed at the event, both by those experiencing the B’nai Mitzvah for the first time and by observers. The event marked a moment of transition in many of the students’ religious lives and a turning point for the club and its programming potential.
The club has an official advisor, but much of the organizing, planning and programming is pioneered by students, especially those on the Hillel board.
When Kornmehl herself was a first year, Hillel had very few members. Now, events are packed with enthusiastic students. Hillel’s growth has continued steadily since its establishment 36 years ago. The club now has more members than ever before—a stark contrast from its membership during Covid-19.
“When Covid happened, the community fractured, and people that I completely associated with Hillel were suddenly gone,” Kornmehl said. “The whole community had to readjust and figure out how to support students.”
When students returned to campus after lockdown, they brought the energy back to the club.
“It became really important to me to give all of myself to Hillel and really try to boost morale and organizing capacity,” Kornmehl said.
Kornmehl will graduate this spring, but she feels confident in the strength of the club after her departure.
“I have so much confidence in the people who are still going to be here. They will definitely keep the energy up,” she said. “Now it’s about making sure that the remaining people know what to do organizationally and logistically to keep making everything happen. And it’s about making sure that they realize how amazing their work has been.”
Avery Cutler ’26, a Hillel board member, referenced the sense of community that Hillel has granted her in these past few months.
“Being on Hillel Board, I’ve loved sharing parts of my own Jewish practices while learning traditions from those around me,” she said. “I was excited to share this sense of belonging with more people through the celebration of Passover.”
This week, the club put on two Seders to celebrate Passover. On Wednesday and Thursday nights, Moulton Union’s Main Lounge and Lancaster Lounge, respectively, were packed with students celebrating the holiday over prayer-, story- and song-filled traditional dinners.
“Everyone is just jovial, but this is then juxtaposed against the actual holiday, which is all about remembering the suffering of Jewish people throughout history,” Kornmehl said. “It’s a very interesting dynamic, and that’s just what I love so much about being Jewish, that those two things can exist so close together.”
Many students, Jewish and non-Jewish, participated in the Passover Seders. Kornmehl said that people bring their floormates, roommates, girlfriends and boyfriends.
“We always have a waiting list. Every single year,” she said.
Cutler explained the special joy she found at Passover as a first-year student this year.
“Passover was such a vibrant and welcoming experience. I was so thankful to celebrate the holiday with so many people across campus,” Cutler said. “It was very special.”
A common theme many Hillel members seem to share is a genuine enthusiasm for sharing their traditions with others, no matter their background. It is all about accepting people wherever they are, and inviting them to share the same space, even just for a moment. Hillel will continue to be open to all students of the College, no matter their prior experiences with Judaism.
“So many people, even if they didn’t grow up Jewish, appreciate the community,” Kornmehl said. “One thing I love about Judaism is that it is not a missionized religion. We’re not actively trying to get people to be Jewish, but we are actively trying to bring people into our space and welcome them.”
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