“A comfortable and safe place for the students to express how they understand their place in Yiddishkeit.” – Hillel Director Rabbi Reena Judd
By Cindy Mindell
HAMDEN – It’s been 10 years since Rabbi Reena Judd was appointed the first-ever full-time director of Quinnipiac University Hillel.
Established in 1963, the organization didn’t have a permanent home until 2012, when the university dedicated the Peter C. Hereld House for Jewish Life on the campus of Quinnipiac University (QU) , named for its benefactor, a local entrepreneur and Holocaust survivor who died in 2010.
Judd has used her pulpit and educational experience to craft the unique role that is QU Hillel director. Ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Hamden native came to the position after leading two small congregations in Mississippi and upstate New York and co-directing the Hillel Children’s School at Yale.
“One of the things that distinguishes working with college students versus congregational ‘rabbi-ing’ is that your congregation is always changing,” says Judd. “And with each new ‘crop’ of students, you get new members who want to change things, to make Hillel their own. So the challenge is to reveal a flexible enough structure that can withstand the constant flow of members, to create a shape that is strong enough to maintain a structure while being flexible enough that the structure meets the needs of the student members.”
The structure is also a fragile one, Judd says, unlike a Hillel at a university with a larger Jewish population and a robust student board.
Instead of board officers, QU Hillel is led by point-people who change as the student population ebbs and flows. Activities evolve from specific programming needs – individual and group – that students help to fill. While many students over the years have offered to serve as Hillel president, Judd says that few have had the time to make the job the priority it needs to be. Those who are able to do so learn to rise to the challenge gradually.
“For Hillel to grow, I have to work with what I have, not demand that what I have fit into little slots,” she says. “I’ve learned to evaluate what works, what has the potential to work with some tweaking, and not take the things that ‘don’t work’ personally.”
And QU Hillel has grown since Judd’s arrival. Starting with eight active undergraduates in 2004, she now serves 150 Jewish students every year, in addition to her interfaith work on campus.
Approximately six percent – roughly 100 students – of each entering freshman class self-identifies as Jewish. One-quarter of those make their way to Hereld House – a split-level ranch across from the main campus – for activities like Shabbat and holiday services, speakers, challah-baking, or one-on-one Torah study with Judd.
“I joined Hillel because I wanted to experience my Jewish roots after I had left home and I met the rabbi and things took off from there,” says Matthew Heller, a sophomore from Syosset, N.Y. “At Hillel, I find a rich Jewish experience with a great community of kids. I think it’s a good place for kids to continue to participate in their religion away from home.”
Junior Stephanie Condoluci grew up in an active Reform family in New City, N.Y., attending Hebrew school, a NFTY youth group, and Jewish summer camp through 12th grade, and is now a NFTY advisor at her family’s synagogue.
“Seeing as Judaism had such a profound impact on my life, I was looking for something to continue this in my college career,” she says. “I have found a Jewish community on a campus where I might not have found one otherwise. I love having Friday night Shabbat services. It allows me to just take 30 minutes from my week to connect with my religion and fellow Jewish peers. Hillel provides that community for Jewish students to go and be a part of so that they can share in their usual traditions.”
Junior Daniel Brecher also grew up in an involved Jewish family, in Commack, N.Y. engaging in United Synagogue Youth through high school.
“Coming to Quinnipiac as a freshman, my goal was to stay as active in the Jewish community as much as possible and I knew immediately that Hereld House would be the perfect home for me to do so,” he says. “From my involvement at the house, I get a sense of pride providing a place for my community and myself to enjoy our Jewish heritage, in addition to providing the Jewish life I want to live.”
Taylor Miller, a freshman from Springfield, N.J., comes from an Orthodox and Conservative background and first got involved with Hillel at this year’s High Holiday services.
“I also wanted to meet other people who share my beliefs and create connections and friendships among them,” Miller says. “I especially enjoy Friday night Shabbat services. It is a great ending to a week of classes and gives us time to relax with each other. Hillel gives its members a sense of community and sense of home.”
Sophomore Adam Cazaz, from Woodcliff Lake, N.J., was involved in his community’s Chabad House through high school and has attended Friday night services at QU since freshman year.
“Judaism is important to me and going to the Hillel on Friday nights gives me a sense of belonging,” he says. “I also believe it is important to meet other Jewish people and get to know other people on campus. You never know what some people are going through. It’s just a great organization and place for Jewish people at QU.”
Judd remembers the days when much of her job entailed finding space on campus for Hillel programs. “The bulk of our Shabbat dinners were in a room with one glass wall and the candle-light would be magnified into the hall for passers-by,” she recalls. Now, it’s the warm orange glow of Hereld House that announces the Jewish presence on campus, Judd says – “a comfortable and safe place for the students to express how they understand their place in Yiddishkeit.”
CAP: Quinnipiac students (l to r) Rachel Gershlack, Matt Heller, Matt Fishman, Andrew Geller (wearing tees emblazoned with the Hebrew word “Quinnipiac”) man the QU Hillel table at a university event welcoming students to campus this past fall.