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Hillel at 90 – The Jewish campus organization comes of age

ct cover 12-2-11By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org


When recent rabbinical school graduate Rabbi Benjamin Frankel began a part-time clerical position in 1923 working with students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), little could he have imagined that within less than a century, the small Jewish student program would balloon into a national and international organization with a presence at 550 colleges and universities.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Under its first full-time national director, Abram L. Sachar, Hillel grew from a primarily religious organization to a center of cultural Jewish learning at a time when Judaism was still viewed with suspicion in academia, and when the existence of Jewish students on American college campuses was relatively new.

“In this dynamic and global environment, our young people will go off and pursue careers and opportunities all over the world, but the one time and place when we have the greatest critical mass of the future of the Jewish people is during the college years,” Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut, who assumed his role last summer, told JNS.org.

While continuing to foster a community for American college students, Hillel also involved itself over the years in international causes such as bringing Jewish student refugees to the U.S. on education scholarships, freeing Soviet Jewry for emigration, and growing support for Israel, especially in the wake of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

In the late 1980s, Hillel underwent another transformation under the directorship of Richard M. Joel, who led the effort to “recognize the growth of Jewish life on campus and to greatly expand together with some extraordinary Jewish philanthropists the footprint of Hillel, to build the physical infasctructure of Hillel, and to enable to reach the campuses where a large percentage of our Jewish students are,” Fingerhut said.

Hillel became an independent non-profit organization in 1994 and eventually adopted a “big tent” policy to represent its philosophy of inclusiveness. If in the early years Hillel had to find a way to hold minyanim across the Jewish denominations in the same venue respectfully, more recently the organization had to find ways to welcome students from homes with one Jewish parent or Jews who define themselves as part of the LGBTQ community.

In Jan. 2014, the ribbon was cut on the new Zachs Hillel House  at Connecticut College, funded by philanthropist  Henry M. Zachs (front row, second from left) and family.

In Jan. 2014, the ribbon was cut on the new Zachs Hillel House
at Connecticut College, funded by philanthropist
Henry M. Zachs (front row, second from left) and family.

In 2002, Hillel partnered with the Jewish Agency for Israel to create its Center for Israel Affairs. Among its Israel-related activities, Hillel organized events, brought experts to speak on campuses, and trained students in Israel advocacy. Hillel also became involved with Taglit-Birthright Israel, bringing more than 10,000 Jewish students to Israel in the first three years of the program alone. Via the Jewish Agency, Hillel also began to invite young Israelis to spend one or two years working at local campus Hillels in leadership roles. Today, 58 Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel serve 67 North American campuses, according to Hillel.

“It’s really hard for people to embrace governments or ideology, and yet to embrace a specific person who has a real narrative… makes it much more difficult to demonize Israel if you’ve actually met an Israeli and you see them as a human being,” said Wayne Firestone, Fingerhut’s immediate predecessor and current president of the Genesis Prize Foundation.

Few people can attest to the success of the Israel Fellows program more than Erez Cohen, the current director of UIUC’s Illini Hillel, who served as an Israel Fellow at the same campus from 2009-2012. Of the 10 students who worked with Cohen directly on events and activities during his first two years as a fellow, today one works at a Hillel and another works for a pro-Israel organization. Three others have since made aliyah, one works for the Israeli consulate in Chicago, and the rest are also involved in Jewish organizations.

Yet Hillel’s work to connect American Jewish students with Israel has not come without controversy, often relating to the questions surrounding the group’s “big tent” policy.

Bagel Brunch at Trinity Hillel.

Bagel Brunch at Trinity Hillel.

Hillel’s official guidelines state that the group will not “partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel.” But a student campaign, Open Hillel, was recently founded by students who feel excluded from Hillel because they believe their critical views about Israel are not accepted. Open Hillel held its first national campaign meeting in September.

“There’s a difference between a big tent and an open tent,” Firestone said. “We’ve never claimed that anything goes inside Hillel… To hold out to any individual student the notion that [he/she] would be welcome is separate from saying what kind of programs could be co-sponsored at Hillel or in collaboration with Hillel.”

Fingerhut said, “There’s no question that Hillel loves Israel, Hillel is a pro-Israel organization, Hillel is about building Jewish identity… and at the core of Jewish identity is that Israel is the home of the Jewish people.”

Apathy about Israel and Jewishness in general is another issue that many campus Hillels encounter, said Michelle Blumenberg, executive director of the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation since 1992. Nevertheless, she said after graduation many students who had participated in Hillel, especially those who went on a Birthright trip with Hillel, continue to engage with their Jewish communities.

The key to Hillel’s success has been changing its roster of options as the students change, Blumenberg said. Since 2008, students have been heavily focusing on professional opportunities and academics in an effort to secure jobs despite the recession. For example, UIUC’s Illini Hillel started Hire U, a student initiative dedicated to providing professional development to college students from a Jewish perspective. On Oct. 10, the program brought Phyllis Tabachnick, managing director at J.P. Morgan and co-chair of The Hillels of Illinois, to speak about the long-term benefits of her involvement in the Jewish community and in business.

Hillel has also branched out to more than 55 international centers in Israel, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Russia, and Former Soviet Union (FSU) nations. In 1994, Hillel opened its first branch in Moscow with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Schusterman Foundation. There are currently 18 Hillels in Russia and the broader FSU region.

The Trachten-Zachs Hillel House at UConn.

The Trachten-Zachs Hillel House at UConn.

Universities in the FSU aren’t based around campuses, so Hillel branches in the region are more central and community based, said Yasha Moz, associate director of Hillel’s international operations.  “It’s a little like a JCC for students,” Moz told JNS.org. More than 14,000 people are now registered in the FSU Hillel database. Hillels in the region sent 1,000 students on Birthright trips this year, a number that has doubled since 2010, Moz said.

Firestone is hopeful that Hillel’s global presence “will be better known and more embraced,” but Hillel “will need to continue to innovate in order to be relevant, to understand and to be an authentic dialogue with the young adults that are on campus today,” he said.

Fingerhut wants Hillel to be as proactive and creative as possible “to make sure our programs are in fact linking this generation of Jewish students to Jewish life, learning, [and] Israel.”

“We’re up to the challenge,” he said.




Hillel in Connecticut

By Judie Jacobson


Today, there are eight vibrant Hillel International student organizations in operation on Connecticut campuses: At UConn, Trinity College, Wesleyan University, University of Hartford, Connecticut College, Yale University, Eastern CT State University and Central CT State University. (The Quinnipiac College Hillel is not affiliated with Hillel International.)

In Connecticut, the name “Zachs” is synonymous with Hillel. The reason is simple: Hartford area philanthropist and businessman Henry Zachs, who is also owner of the Jewish Ledger, has been a major benefactor of Hillel International locally, donating about $7 million to several Hillel student organizations around the state and taking an active interest in their ongoing health and well-being, not only in terms of money, but in terms of time and energy as well.

In fact, in recent years three Connecticut campuses have opened impressive and expansive new Hillel facilities thanks to funding provided by Henry Zachs and family:  In May 2002, Trinity College dedicated the new Zachs Hillel House; in October 2010, UConn’s newly refurbished Trachten-Zachs Hillel House opened its doors (funded by Zachs and New Haven philanthropist Morris Trachten z”l); and in January 2014, Connecticut College cut the ribbon on its brand new Zachs Hillel House. Now, Zachs has his sights set on the University of Hartford, where he has put into motion plans to build a new campus Hillel house.

As the school year came to a close, several Connecticut Hillel directors were off to Israel, leading Taglit-Birthright trips.  Two Hillel leaders, however, were still available to reflect on the impact Hillel has had on the students they serve. Here is what they had to say.


Lisa Kassow

Director, Zachs Hillel House

Trinity College, Hartford


The Zachs Hillel House at Trinity College

The Zachs Hillel House at Trinity College

Hillel has a tremendously positive effect on college campuses today as the leading organization concerned with creating, building and sustaining vibrant, meaningful connections and community with Jewish students. Hillel is not only a natural and comfortable home away from home for Jewish students, but it provides exposure to the breadth, depth, beauty and warmth of Jewish life for the wider campus community as well.

At Trinity, Hillel strives to be a model of inclusion, an open tent that provides myriad ways for students to enter the Jewish world – as a welcoming environment where they can simply be comfortable as Jews, and an ongoing panoply of opportunities for engagement with Jewish life on many levels.  That engagement in an environment of openness, acceptance, and exploration can become the foundation of a lifelong relationship with Judaism and the Jewish community. Hillel’s success in the long run, locally and nationally, is as the conduit for ongoing relationships with Judaism.

I often think that Trinity offers a “boutique Hillel.” Our focus is on the quality of relationships – with students, families, faculty, lay leaders, alumni, and the wider campus and Jewish communities. Our Jewish population is comprised of several hundred students, small enough to know each student individually and to focus on programs of high quality that encourage deep and genuine engagement with Jewish culture, experiences and ideas. Shabbat and holidays, including all major observances and commemorations, provide the basic structure of the Jewish calendar on a college campus from September through May. At Trinity, this structure is the springboard for weekly opportunities to delve into the customs, foods, rituals, history and culture of specific Jewish communities throughout the world in our themed Shabbatot.

In addition to annual Birthright trips to Israel, we travel on alternative winter and spring breaks to far-flung places in the Diaspora and encounter different Jewish communities.  Recent explorations included visits to Jewish communities in Uganda, Uruguay, Argentina, Trinidad and Poland. Each adventure focuses on the values in our tradition that speak to being responsible, engaged citizens of the world, listening carefully, doing for others and actively participating in tikkun olam. We intend to maintain these valuable connections, especially with the Abuyadaya Jewish community of Uganda.

This past spring, Trinity College Hillel sponsored a trip for twelve students to Poland to learn about the Polish Jewish past, present and future. Among our group were nine Jewish students and three non-Jews (“Finding Hope in Poland” Ledger, April 19, 2014). Throughout the trip, in addition to visiting sites of major importance in Jewish history in Warsaw, Krakow, and Auschwitz, our students met with contemporary leaders involved in the renewal of Jewish life in Poland, at Shabbat services and dinner and at the Warsaw Moishe House. This trip was transformative for the students who participated; they shared their experiences in blogs, articles, poetry, prose, photography exhibits  and by leading Trinity’s Yom HaShoah Commemoration this year.  This kind of profound, deep engagement with Jewish life is the hallmark of Trinity College Hillel, where professionals, lay leaders and professors come together in a team approach to encourage our bright and curious students to explore their own relationships with Judaism and Jewish Peoplehood.

Closer to home, Trinity Hillel is well integrated into the life of the college. Co-sponsorship with other student groups is the norm, including programs focused on Israel and Israeli culture. Sharing Israel as a living, breathing, creative, diverse society where at least half of world Jewry lives today is part and parcel of what we do on campus. One recent initiative was bringing to Trinity Israeli Stage, a professional theater group from Boston that does staged readings of contemporary Israeli theater pieces that otherwise would not be produced in the U.S. The two-person piece they brought was

Oh God by Anat Gov, in which God goes to psychotherapy. This year, we hope to build a more sustained relationship with this innovative group, co-sponsored with the Department of Theater and Dance.


Carrie Mantis

President (2013-2014),

ECSU Hillel

Eastern Connecticut

State University, Willimantic


(l to r) ECSU Hillel president (1013-14) Carrie Mantis (2013-14), Hillel treasurer (2013-14) Brian Levy, and Hillel past president Rob Kavaler accept the schools Cultural Program of the Year Award.

(l to r) ECSU Hillel president (1013-14) Carrie Mantis (2013-14), Hillel treasurer (2013-14) Brian Levy, and Hillel past president Rob Kavaler accept the schools Cultural Program of the Year Award.

Many Jewish students entering college were either previously very active with their youth group back home, or were not religious growing up but are looking to connect with people with shared beliefs. Hillel encourages students to find a similar connection to one another. Hillel is able to bring together peers who would not necessarily have gotten to know and befriend each other otherwise. Hillel does not put pressure on students to be constantly active; it allows them to choose how much they would like to become involved based on time commitment, interest and other factors. Hillel is an organization that is centered completely around its students and welcomes anyone, allowing each and every member to feel at home.

The Hillel on Eastern’s campus is what we like to describe as “small but mighty.” Our Hillel was only created a few years ago and has expanded quite a bit since then. We are completely student-run, with the exception of our faculty advisors, and we use that to our advantage. We are not extremely large, but we have become a tight-knit group of friends year after year. We all work together on projects and plan events throughout the year for members and classmates. We welcome everyone on campus, Jewish or not, to our events, including our monthly Shabbat dinners. It is our hope that Hillel will continue to expand at Eastern throughout the years, gaining more and more members. For now, we like to think that we have been very successful in creating a group that not only shares our culture with others, but also creates a close bond with one another filled with lasting friendships.

Fundamentally the idea of an Open Hillel — one that is open to all students, not simply those who are Jewish, but also those who may have differing opinions on the State of Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — is one that we at Eastern Connecticut State University support. Simply by creating the precedent for hearing all viewpoints we are able to take the high road and expect the same of others.

Our campus is located in the middle of the Eastern half of Connecticut where the Jewish population is virtually non-existent past New London. The total number of students who attend Eastern Connecticut State University is under 6,000 and the percentage of students who are Jewish, is currently less than 10 percent. The bottom line is this: though we are supporters of the state of Israel and the international diplomatic idea of a two-state solution, we simply cannot afford to turn people away. In order for our university’s small Hillel chapter to flourish we need people from all walks of life to attend our meetings and events, we need people with differing opinions to come to our campus, and we need to be able to listen to opinions different from our own to understand where people stand on particular issues.  We do not think that declaring your university an “Open Hillel” means you are anti-Israel; rather it allows a Hillel organization to open new people up to what Israel means to all of us, and show how important the idea of Jewish state is to the world.

Eastern’s Hillel hosts Friday Night Shabbat Dinners (catered by Crown Market) at least once a month on campus, and celebrates major Jewish holidays on campus with events and programs, such as our Apples to Apples Rosh Hashanah celebration, Lots of Latkes Chanukah Party, annual Chocolate Passover Seder and Matzoh Ball end-of-year dance. Every year we collaborate on new ideas and try to get our entire club involved in planning. We welcome all students, faculty and fellow Jewish community members to join us in our celebrations!

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