When Jenna Heffler came to Penn State, she didn’t know if she wanted to be heavily involved in the Jewish community.
Heffler grew up in a Jewish family, but didn’t know how closely she would stick to other Jewish students once she left her parents’ house and went to college. That is, until she attended her first Rosh Hashana service as a freshman.
“I went to Rosh Hashana and was blown away by how important being Jewish was to people like me,” she said.
Now a senior, Heffler is the president of Penn State Hillel — a group that promotes Jewish life engagement among students — and helped to organize Wednesday’s Rosh Hashana event that drew more than 400 people to the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.
Rosh Hashanah is a high holiday commemorating the Jewish New Year.
Heffler said she and other students began planning the service and dinner in April, and her main goal is to reach out to as many students as she could.
She said people don’t remember what happens at those types of events as much as they remember the people.
“You remember that one person, who reached out to you,” she said, describing the Penn State Jewish community as a big family.
Jonathan Reich experienced that sense of family from his first few days on campus.
Reich said he grew up in a driven, but not overly strict Jewish family and when he came to Penn State, he sought out that connection with other students, joining Hillel.
He is now a board member for the organization and wants to support the younger students to make them feel as accepted as he was when he was a freshman.
“It’s a family that you can fall back on,” he said.
Following the service, nearly 400 students came together in about five rooms to dine on traditional Jewish food such as Matzah Ball soup, challah and kugel. Heffler said all the people used to be able to fit in one room to eat, but with the growing numbers they wanted to break it up to give each room an intimate and home-like feel.
And Hillel Executive Director Aaron Kaufman is delighted with the growing numbers.
He said this is the biggest service and dinner for a Rosh Hashana that he has seen in seven years and the energy of the young students is encouraging for the future of Jewish life on campus.
“It’s tremendously invigorating and meaningful,” he said.