National Hillel urges a return to Judaism

This isn’t your mom and dad’s Hillel.

For years, Hillel has been seen as the temple of a college campus, the place for Jewish students, faculty and community members to participate in the traditions of Judaism. But the organization is undergoing a metamorphosis and creating programs to involve as many Jewish students as possible.

“The more students see Hillel as a synagogue on campus, the more they’ll stay away from it,” said Richard M. Joel, president and international director of Hillel.

So when Hillel leaders from across the country met in D.C. this week to lobby congressional leaders and speak on public policy issues, the programming ideas they exchanged went a lot further than Shabbat services and Passover seders.

They were discussing programs that focus on women’s issues, Jewish life in the Greek-letter community and in the residence halls, and programs geared toward international issues.

“Hillel is an enabler and a provoker,” said Elie Zarem, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and co-chair of Hillel’s Student Initiatives Committee. “Enabling someone to develop their own Judaic identity is something Hillel deserves accolades for.”

Rabbi Michael Balinsky has served as Northwestern University’s Hillel director for 18 years. He said the program has changed from a place for kosher living to a place of inclusion for many Jewish students.

“Essentially, there are many more students from different backgrounds doing different things,” Balinsky said.

Balinsky said students are active in a lot of things, and Hillel works to facilitate them. Hillels across the country sponsor a cappella singing groups, theater programs, sports teams and political discussions aimed at Jewish students. Their target audience is students who might not have otherwise joined Hillel but are attracted by the programs and events it sponsors.

“They want a sense of campus that goes beyond Hillel,” he said.

At GW’s Hillel, the stigma of a religious organization may hurt attendance at some events, said Emily Katz, a former president.

“I think people perceive Hillel as a purely religious organization and that’s what hurts Hillel as a whole,” Katz said. “I think the publicity that we try to surround ourselves with is that it’s open for not just religious opportunities, but cultural and social opportunities as well.”

One of the more social events was Wednesday night’s coffee house.

“We may not get the same amount of people (to social events) but the same kinds of people,” Hillel President Ari Grossman said. “In addition, we may get people who may not even be Jewish but just come in and hang out with us.”

Joel said the expansion is part of a plan to move Hillels past the religious aspects of Jewish life and bring in more people who are interested in “doing Jewish,” as he calls his mission.

“We want the maximum number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews,” he said. “We should be uncomfortable unless every Jew is passionate about his or her Jewishness.”

Joel said many of today’s Jewish college students have not been touched by their religion since their bar or bat mitzvahs, more than five years before they enter college.

He calls those uninvolved students “the silent majority” and getting them inside the Hillel doors is the program’s biggest challenge. He said many feel intimidated and alienated by the minority of Jewish students who actively participate in Hillel, many of whom speak Hebrew and have a deep understanding of the religion’s history.

“Most Jewish students feel Hillel is the only place on campus where they can’t get an `A,'” he said.

So now Hillel is branching out beyond mainstream Jewish programs and attempting to identify the connection between college students and Judaism. And many times, that means leaving the confines of the Hillel building, and becoming more active in the school as a whole.

“We need to reach out past the Jewish community, with programs that tell the entire school what Hillel is about,” said Jill Sodafsky, a sophomore at Tufts University in Boston.

Six Tufts students attended the policy conference and said they see cultural and social programs bringing in students who otherwise might not come to the center. They even brought a hypnotist to Hillel, a program that got rave reviews.

“People are very disenchanted with Judaism because of how they grew up,” said Dena Sloan, a sophomore and co-chair of Jewish Women’s Collective at Tufts, where students estimate the Jewish population is around 30 percent. “They feel they’d be excluded because they wouldn’t be as knowledgeable.”

Hillel crisscrosses the many areas in which college-age Jews participate, and that has increased its popularity, said Larry Sternberg, a professor of Jewish advocacy at Brandeis University and the director of the Perlmutter Institute.

“Hillel’s grown in part because it’s gotten more appropriate for the needs on campus,” he said.

Sternberg said additional financial support has led to more staff, which can provide more services. He said the new Hillel incorporates what students are naturally interested in: having fun, giving something back and self-development.

“By the time they are juniors, they are trying to figure out what to do,” he said. “They are making decisions.”

Joel said the renaissance of Hillel does not come at the expense of the traditional teachings the program provides.

“I don’t think there is any lack of traditional Jewish values on campus,” he said. He said the programs need to find a balance between the participation-oriented programs many are championing, and the values and laws Hillel needs to teach.

“It would be foolishness to write off students who haven’t written themselves off yet.”

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