I Didn’t Realize How Connected to Judaism I Was Until I Wasn’t Surrounded By It

by JCPConnect-

By Justin Waldrip, pictured above (right) with Jacob Klaven, Executive Director of BBYO Memphis (left) and Rachel Mullaney, Hillel of Memphis Vice President Elect (center). Photos by Barry Markowitz

Justin Waldrip read an abridged version of this speech at Jewish Community Partner’s Pillars of the Community event this week, honoring the families, organizations, and individuals that have each cumulatively given $250,000 or more in unrestricted funds over their years of philanthropy. 

Good evening. My name is Justin Waldrip, immediate past president of the Morris S. Fogelman Jewish Student Center at Hillel of Memphis. Laura Linder asked if I would speak tonight about how Hillel has affected me, but I looked at this list of honorees, and I can’t think of anyone whose generosity hasn’t impacted my life in some capacity. On behalf of the people I grew up with, thank you for your support to the Memphis Jewish Community.

My connection to many of you goes back to 1997 when I was first exposed to Judaism at the Barbra K. Lipman Early Learning Center at Temple Israel. Then I continued my Jewish education at Bornblum Solomon Schechter School,  which, thanks to the generous donation from Bert Bornblum of blessed memory, gave me the love of Torah and Judaism and provided me with my first opportunity to go to Israel.

Once I graduated from Schechter, I began my education at Germantown High School, where there weren’t many Jews, but I attended, became confirmed, and graduated from the Wendy and Avron Fogelman Religious School at Temple Israel, a place where I have taught and mentored Judaism’s next generation for the past two years. I then entered my college career at Saint Louis University, and out of 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students, I was one of six total Jews. While there, I joined the Jewish student organization called “SLU’s Jews,” but out of the six of us on campus, only three were active in our once-a-semester programming.

My non Jewish friends were actually more active in Jewish life than “SLU’s justin-speakingJews.” We had Passover Seders, baked challah in our residence hall, and lit Chanukah candles in my room, despite the no candles rule. I didn’t realize how connected to Judaism I was until I wasn’t constantly surrounded by it.

So I ultimately transferred to the University of Memphis in 2014 and immediately sought out Hillel on the first day of school. A few days later, I walked in the doors of the Morris S. Fogelman Jewish Student Center at Hillel of Memphis, and I found what I was missing: Jewish friends and community. Within three months of being an active member of Hillel, I became president, a position that I have proudly served in for the past two years.

During my two year tenure as President, I worked with the Hillel Adult Advisory Board, Jewish Community Partners, and Hal Fogelman to implement a new leadership structure that focuses on student leadership development, represented the University of Memphis at the AIPAC Policy Conference in our nation’s capital, and was a liaison from colleges and universities across the region to the greater Memphis Jewish Community. In addition to the constant support from the Fogelman family, I want to thank tonight’s honorees and everyone who has donated time and money to Hillel has made this possible.

So I’d like to take a minute to share how Hillel has impacted me by giving me more than a place for me to hang out and do Jewish things with other Jews; Hillel of Memphis has helped me determine what I want to do professionally: a career path in Jewish service. The leadership skills I developed by running cultural and social programming will be an invaluable asset for wherever my professional life will take me.

It would be unfair for me to not talk about some of our Hillel members. We have amazing students who have made our Hillel as great as it is. Recently elected Hillel Vice President, Rachel Mullaney, brought over 60 members of the University of Memphis community into Hillel for our most recent Interfaith Passover Seder by planning and executing a thought provoking discussions of freedom.  Not only was this event inspiring for me, but for weeks that followed, students across campus were keeping the conversation going.

Our new President, Aaron Canales, plans to grow Hillel’s presence on campus by collaborating with the other Registered Student and Religious Life Organizations in joint student lead programming, beginning with an open house and cookout in the near future. His vision of working together with other organizations will not only be positive for Hillel and the University of Memphis community, but the Jewish community as well.

The three of us are only a few of the hundreds of students who your donations have helped foster and develop Jewish identity and leadership on campus. We have had a saying the past few years: “We’re few, but mighty.” We might not be the biggest Hillel in the world, but our members, current and former, have greatly benefited from having a Jewish Home on Campus, and you, tonight’s honorees, are responsible for making that happen.

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