Oh man - this is a crazy story. Where to start... Well, it started with Amitai, a grad student in physics (he's really smart) winning some essay contest in Jewish thought sponsored by the Jewish studies department of University of Kentucky. The prize included them bringing him in to give a lecture and receive his award. Amitai and I started talking and, after checking some demographics on Hillel's website, thought of planning a Shabbaton to Kentucky, or specifically the University of Kentucky in Lexington. According to Hillel, UK has 200 Jews out of a student population of 20,000, which amounts to 1% of the population. They have a Hillel there but it is not much more than a name - no building, no room, no paid staff and barely any programming; we heard they have maybe two event per year, which amount to a handful of Jews going bowling together or going out for (non-kosher) pizza. So Amitai and I emailed their 'faculty advisers' and asked if, while he was down there anyway, he could run some Jewish programming there, maybe with an experienced friend too. They responded that they'd be more than happy to have us come and even offered to fly me down there too. After a few exchanges, they ended up agreeing to paying for a van and seven of us driving down for Shabbat.
So that was our crazy plan - to drive down to Lexington, Kentucky and make Shabbat. With the plans in place, we started arranging - getting Penn people, the car, food (we had to bring most of the food, as there's not much kosher food in Lexington), and logistics. The big questions was: would anyone come? The advisor at UK's Hillel thought we might 5-10, but wasn't too sure. So we started asking around - mutual friends, group contacts, gchat statuses, whatever. Once when I was talking about this and someone overheard me, they said: "University of Kentucky? I think I know someone who knows someone who goes there who is Jewish!" Sure enough, after some 'mutual friend' searching, I found and contacted her and after receiving an excited message in return, we had found our first Jew in Kentucky.
New story: a few weeks later, I was searching on facebook for 'shabbat dinners' (isn't that what everyone searches for when they're stalking people on facebook?). Why? - Just stam, for no particular reason other than to see what was out there, as I was thinking about how to spread Shabbat dinners at Penn. A simple search returned over 200 hits - groups, events and friends' whose profiles included Shabbat dinners. I randomly clicked on one group on some page and arrived at a group called "Shabbat Dinners" which consisted of 4 members in no specific networks. So I clicked on their names: the first person was some high school senior from somewhere random, the second was a freshman at some college, the third was some guy who happened to have a random mutual friend, and the fourth was a freshman girl whose networks were 'Transylvania University' and 'Lexington, Kentucky'. Lexington Kentucky!?!?! My jaw dropped in total shock and I just began laughing- how the heck did I happen to find someone from Lexington, Kentucky a week before I'm supposed to go there? If it weren't that week, I wouldn't have even noticed that, let alone known where Lexington, Kentucky was. Then I got worried - maybe she's originally from Lexington but now goes to University in, I dunno, Romania? I quickly looked up Transylvania University and was happily surprised to see that it is a small, liberal arts college right next to UK! My next instinct was to see what kind of religious life they have there, whereupon I saw that their website spoke of "its ongoing affiliation with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)" and offered religious organizations such as 'Campus Crusade for Christ', 'Disciples on Campus', 'Transy Episcopal Fellowship' and 'Transylvania Catholic Organization'. By now I couldn't stop myself from cracking up - how in the world did I happen to find this girl who loves Shabbat dinner in the middle of Lexington at some Christian college?! Truly random, and with no logical explanation, this discovery was for me a clear portrayal of the Hand of God.
I decided that if I had gotten this far, I had to do something more, and so I facebook-messaged her. I told her the story of how I found her and how I was coming with some friends to Lexington in two weeks; "Would she want to join us for Shabbat?", I asked her. I also said she could tell other Jews in Lexington, to take some of the pressure off of her. She wrote back soon afterwards: "Hey. Uhhhh haha this is a little weird but its fine. Are you coming here for Keeneland? I guess I'm kinda interested, I'm not a native of Kentucky and I don't know that many Jews here (considering at my school there's only 4 Jews and they don't practice) and I miss it."
Wow. First of all, you're probably asking yourself "What's Keeneland?" For all you uncultured Americans out there, Keeneland is a preparatory race for the Kentucky Derby, and is the finest and highest-ranked thoroughbred racetrack in the country. Turns out, opening day of the spring races and free-admission-for-college-students day was the Friday we were due to arrive. Second of all, to think that there are 5 Jews there and somehow we found the 1 who cares - and she misses Shabbat or Judaism or something! Anyway, I went to her facebook profile (when someone messages you, you can see their page) and I see the following as her 'quote about myself': "If someone gave a me a blank check and a plane ticket for anywhere in the world I would leave everything, go to Israel and never ever come back. Because that is where my heart is, and that's where I belong"
Whoo. Wow. Not one of my Orthodox, Zionist, gungho-on-aliyah friends (nor myself) have a quote anywhere as powerful as that. And she's in Transylvania University?! We were excited, to say the least to spend Shabbat with her, and some other Kentucky Jews. When I told her we were excited, she said "What? Excited for what?" Excited for what?! To meet her, and to spend Shabbat in a new place with new people which would hopefully give us a fresh look on Jewish life and hopefully provide the same for them.
Part two to come. Hopefully there can be many more parts in the future as well...