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Tapping Into a ‘Time of Possibility’: Tamar Friedman at the University of Pennsylvania
Mechon Hadar builds community on campus by fostering student leaders
Tamar Friedman may have been one of Mechon Hadar’s youngest fellows when she spent the summer of 2012 in the summer intensive program, but her impact post-fellowship has already been significant.
After she spent her summer as a rising sophomore learning at Mechon Hadar, she didn’t simply return to the typical life at the University of Pennsylvania.
Instead, Friedman worked to bring the values, spirit, and style of learning she encountered at Hadar back to her campus. She became involved in and eventually co-chaired Shira Chadasha, a partnership minyan at Penn that prays in a halakhic, Orthodox framework but strives to include women as much as possible. Shira Chadasha also strives to include uplifting Jewish music in its services, in the spirit of Mechon Hadar’s Center for Jewish Communal Music.
In 2013 Friedman was awarded a Mechon Hadar alumni microgrant to deepen the Torah skills of the students praying in her community and on Penn’s campus in general. Most students who participate in Shira Chadasha did not grow up receiving aliyot at the Torah or doing haghbah during Shabbat morning services. Through a series of three workshops, Friedman helped teach students basic Torah service skills like how to receive an aliyah and how to do hagbah and g’lilah,; how to manage services and how to control the room; and how to write and give a d’var Torah.
Friedman also organized the first ever intercollegiate partnership minyan Shabbaton in 2013, where more than 120 students from campuses across the country gathered to celebrate Shabbat and discuss how to improve the partnership minyanim at their respective colleges and universities.
The political science major from Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania recognizes how important the college years are in building Jewish identity. "It’s a really amazing time Jewishly,” she said, as young Jews encounter different types of Jews and Judaism they may not have experienced before. “Working with Jews on campus means tapping into this amazing time of possibility.”
Friedman grew up in a Conservative home, went to Schechter schools and Camp Ramah, and studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem after high school. But when she started becoming more observant in college she was no longer sure of her place in the Jewish world. “I had felt very alone, I couldn’t find my place,” she said.
At Mechon Hadar she found a group of people who “weren’t letting others decide how to practice Judaism or how to build their Jewish communities.”
“I was suddenly surrounded by a community. Not everyone’s questions were the same as mine, but I felt a community and a support network of people who were really seriously thinking about these questions."
According to Friedman, that kind of searching is exactly what is happening among Jewish students on college campuses, and why Mechon Hadar’s work on campuses is so important. “When children are young, parents want to put them through institutions that share the ideological values that the parents have,” she explained. “Children of different denominations don’t really interact when they’re growing up. What’s amazing about university is that all the barriers break down, and everything becomes possible. Students of university age have lots of opportunities to ask themselves lots of questions about who they are and what their values are, and what in Jewish practice and observance do they connect to and not connect to. Students explore what kind of communities they want to belong to in the future.”
But on many college campuses, even those with large Jewish populations, the opportunities for exploration are limited. The beit midrash-style learning opportunities are often strictly Orthodox. Mechon Hadar recognized a void for students interested in an egalitarian prayer and learning environment.
To fill that void, Mechon Hadar created Hadar Campus Scholars, a group of program alumni who are graduate students and are given funding run programs on campus. So far there have been Campus Scholars at the University of Michigan and at Penn.
Mechon Hadar also funds year-round fellows to work in New York-area Hillels. These fellows, with support from UJA-Federation of New York, have worked at Baruch College, Hofstra University, Queens College, Columbia University, and New York University.
At Penn, Friedman works often with the Hadar Campus Scholars to host events, and they helped her run the Torah skills workshops as well.
Friedman may still be finding her exact Jewish place, but she no longer feels lost, and she’s now helping other Jews on campus find their place as well. “It’s a very open community, where the focus is on spirituality and meaningful prayer,” she says of Shira Chadasha. “Not many people grew up in a Hadar kind of community, but we’ve created a place where people can feel like they’re leading a meaningful and all-encompassing Jewish life.”
Find Out More About...
- Bringing Mechon Hadar teachers into your campus community;
- Our Winter Learning Seminar, a two week intensive during the winter break;
- Our summer beit midrash, an eight week learning intensive;
- Our Hillel Professionals' Institute, a week intensive to support Hillel professionals in their Jewish learning.