Last weekend I travelled to Palo Alto to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of Hillel at Stanford University. I was honored (especially as an alum) to screen an episode of our new original series, America Undiscovered, and the event and weekend was a transformative and enlightening experience that left me feeling so connected. It was incredible to be surrounded by hundreds of Jews, all different ages and backgrounds, who are passionate about their faith and heritage.
Together with one of my producers, we arrived Friday for the three-day celebration that kicked off with a wonderful Shabbat dinner. I felt connected by the enveloping sense of community that made the evening so special - an immediate connection based on shared traditions. I met strangers - students, alumni, faculty, and local residents - who ate, sang, and shared prayers as if we all were longtime friends. It was our Jewish American background that made us feel like family; we talked to so many people who are passionate about their heritage and eager to share their personal stories and journey with us. A lot of great potential stories for America Undiscovered especially given the varied people and places represented, e.g., Prescott, Arizona, Ethiopia, Mexico.
Other festivities included an incredible Jewish rock concert led by Jewish musical legend, Craig Taubman, whose warmth and original music lit up the room. Music is clearly one of many ways Jews stay connected and the enthusiasm and well known songs led to a chorus of voices that was both inspiring and helped fuel our passion for our new show and desire to share so many more stories about unusual Jews around the country. Given growing religious and cultural intolerance and increasing concerns about a declining Jewish American population and assimilation, we’re eager to share uplifting positive stories about Judaism.
At a standing room only Sunday brunch with 150 guests, we shared a story about a town in Vicksburg, MS where the Jewish population has dwindled to six congregants in their late 80s who are the last Jews in the region. One of them is on a mission to keep the area’s only temple and adjoining Jewish cemetery going. And, her Christian neighbors are lending their support by attending services every Friday so they can make a minyan, i.e., minimum of 10 participants. We were overwhelmed with the audience’s reaction – several were moved to tears, others wanted to share story ideas, and some wanted to get involved with the project! This is what America Undiscovered is all about – being a connector by profiling people who exemplify the “can do” spirit of Jewish Americans and their desire to strengthen their Jewish identity – much mission of Hillel at Stanford.
To cap off the weekend, we heard a moving talk by an Orthodox New York rabbi who is an expert Torah scribe. He discussed that each of the 600,000 letters found in every Torah must be written by hand and that any mistake or omission invalidates the entire document. What was most moving is that he can go to any part of the world, open up the Torah, and be comforted knowing that it will be the same holy book he uses back at his Brooklyn synagogue. He told a story that encapsulated our special Hillel celebration weekend. Rabbi Pincus flew that morning from New York during a storm and, much to his family’s surprise, his flight made it out. But, it was meant to be or as they say “bashert”. He flew United Flight 613…the exact number of mitzvot (commands from God) in the Torah!
A weekend to remember and I was proud to be a part of it as a Jew and a storyteller.