By Stacey Dresner
HARTFORD, Conn. – When Noah Kell arrived at the University of Hartford as a freshman he didn’t expect to have a spiritual awakening.
But on the very first day of class, he broke his collarbone playing a game of pickup football. Surgery and a difficult recovery basically upended Noah’s freshman year.
“I only went home for six days after the surgery then I went right back to school,” Noah says. “I was on bed rest and medications for a while and I would only walk to class. I was walking around with permanent nerve damage in my left shoulder. I didn’t want to give up but I did struggle in school. I did pretty bad in school that first semester.”
Despite that bump in the road, Noah says he thinks his injury as a freshman was a big factor in his growing interest in Judaism.
“The surgery gave me clarity and let me really sit back and realize what was important in my life,” he explains.
Noah says his Jewish journey began last fall when, as a sophomore, he began going to Shabbat dinners at University of Hartford Hillel, as well as attending Jewish programming down the block from the campus at Chabad Chevra, which serves students at the nearby Rohr Chabad House.
“My best memories over this past year of me getting involved in Judaism have come from those two groups of people,” Noah says. “They were accepting of me and were always open to sharing things with me and teaching me. It was like ‘‘Wow! There’s this whole new part of me!’”
This past June, Noah, now a junior, went on Birthright Israel, the program that sends young Jewish adults on a free 10-day trip to Israel. The next month, Noah competed in the Maccabiah Games 2022 in Jerusalem. Known informally as the “Jewish Olympics,” this year 10,000 Jewish athletes from all over the world participated in the Maccabiah Games, which is not only a sports competition but also aims to strengthen Jewish pride and Jewish identity.
“I feel like the two trips made for a good balance and perspective,” Noah says. “I [celebrated] my bar mitzvah on Birthright. It meant a lot to me because I grew up confused about what being Jewish really meant and in a way I still am. But it was definitely one step that really took me into a whole new world.”
Noah grew up in Cumberland, Rhode Island in an interfaith family – his mother is Catholic and his father is Jewish. They divorced when he was seven. While he didn’t practice Judaism as a child, Noah says he was always interested in learning more about it.
“I never really went to synagogue, except a few times with my Nana,” Noah says. “My family wasn’t very religious except for celebrating holidays but I always had an interest.”
In high school, Noah was athletic, playing football, baseball and lacrosse. A fast runner, he began running hurdles on his high school track team as a sophomore and quickly placed fifth in the state of Rhode Island. As a senior, he had a top 100 time and was second in the state in hurdles.
He decided to run track in college and committed to the Division I track and field team at the University of Hartford.
“I was on a roll until I broke my collarbone,” he says.
After his long year of recovery and rough freshman year, where he says he “had almost fallen down the wrong path,” he decided to visit Hillel.
“I remember as soon as I came back, I knew I needed to see what was up with these groups. I got really lucky and I found this group of friends and it led me down the path I’m now on. Going into junior year, I have new insight and new priorities.”
Last year he participated in Hillel’s Jewish Learning Fellowship a, 10-week “experiential, conversational seminar for students looking to deepen their understanding of Judaism “on their own terms.”
“Noah participated in Hillel’s Jewish Learning Fellowship for the first time last year, and spent a lot of time talking with his peers about his secular interests within a Jewish lens,” says Lisa Langsner, director of Hartford Hillel. “We knew that Noah was interested in exploring how to connect with Judaism in a way that was comfortable, and most importantly meaningful, to him.”
He also began going regularly to Chabad Chevra, and did its Sinai Scholar program, an eight-week of Jewish text study.
Noah had signed up to go on Birthright Israel in January of 2022, but that trip was cancelled due to an outbreak of Covid. He then signed up to go on a June Birthright trip. Those plans were cutting things a little close because he had already joined the Maccabi USA track team that was set to compete at the Maccabiah Games in July.
“My Nana told me about the Maccabiah Games one time over a year ago,” Noah recalled. “I asked the people at Hillel about it and they pointed me in the right direction and once I made the team they helped me get some money to go.”
The Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies provided a scholarship for Noah for his travel to Jerusalem for the Games. The scholarship was from The Simcha and Aaron Dubitzky Memorial Scholarship to support students’ travel to Israel.
Noah, the only hurdler on the Maccabi USA team, came in 5th in his division.
“The Maccabiah Games was a unique opportunity to explore his passion for athletics and his emerging interest in developing his Jewish identity. It was a pretty easy connection for us to make,” Langsner notes. “Our Manager of Programming and Engagement Emma Strumpf, had the opportunity to staff Noah’s Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, and so Noah experienced Israel for the first time as a student while having a trusted mentor to guide him on his first experience. He [celebrated his] bar mitzvah while on his Birthright trip, and then returned to Israel a few weeks later as an athlete. Each experience had a unique impact on him – as a student, an athlete, a traveler, a writer, a friend… all within the lens of building his own Jewish identity.”
Building his Jewish identity was also important to Noah at the Maccabiah Games.
“I knew nobody on any of these teams but I became friends with a lot of them. We toured around. It was beautiful. We went to the [Western] Wall, Masada, everywhere. And we met people from countries around the world – France, Great Britain, Australia, countries in South America and Africa. And they were all Jews. It was incredible. I couldn’t believe how many people were from like Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay alone.”
Since his time spent in Israel last summer, Noah’s Jewish identity has grown stronger.
“I see myself as a Jewish man,” he says. “I appreciate what I had as a kid celebrating Christian holidays – I love my mom more than the world but at the same time I don’t really think you can necessarily follow two religions.”
Back at the University of Hartford, where he majors in film production and screenwriting, Noah says he is doing great in school and is remaining active in Hillel. He has been on the Dean’s List for the past two semesters and is going to participate in a Hillel Leadership Summit.
“I might compete in the next Maccabiah Games,” Noah says. “I’ve also thought about after college. I’ve always thought about serving in the military, and now I know about the IDF. And that’s a whole other story.”
And how does Noah’s grandmother, who used to take him to synagogue as a child, feel about Noah and his Jewish journey?
“I’ve made her the happiest Nana in the world,” he says.