By Cindy Mindell
NEW LONDON – Just after the November elections, six Jewish Connecticut College students had an opportunity to put a finger on the pulse of North American Jewish communal life. Accompanied by Rabbi Susan Schein, director of the Zachs Hillel House at Connecticut College, the contingent joined thousands of Jews from around the country and beyond at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA) in Washington, D.C. The group traveled as part of the Eastern Connecticut delegation to the GA, comprised of Jerry Fischer, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, and Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz of Temple B’nai Israel in Willimantic.
The annual weekend-long event convenes volunteer and professional leaders from Jewish Federations across North America, together with representatives of Jewish philanthropic and educational organizations from around the world, to discuss issues and ideas that affect the global Jewish community. The Connecticut College cohort was one of several Hillel delegations in attendance, and the first one led by Schein since she began her tenure in 2014.
After a weekend of presentations and discussions on what matters most to the Jewish world in 2016, the students returned to campus inspired about their involvement in Jewish life at school and already thinking about where their respective Jewish journeys might lead.
“I came to understand that the Jewish community is very diverse, yet we all share some common values and understandings about the world,” says Becca Smith (’19), a native of Winchester, Mass. who serves as chair of communications on the Connecticut College Hillel executive board. “Though I met and saw many different ‘kinds’ of Jews over the weekend, I felt connected to everyone in some way. Our experiences and Jewish backgrounds are all different, yet our understanding of the importance of Judaism and feeling connected to the religion, at whatever level, is a common value we share. I also learned that the Jewish community is more committed to service and tzedakah than I ever even knew!”
Rachel Levin (’20), a Los Angeles native who is a co-chair of the Connecticut College Hillel board’s Freshman Programming Committee, was struck by the diversity of Jewish lifestyles and communal roles represented at the event.
“I knew about this before, but it was only at the GA – when I saw all of the people wearing different garb, from different generations, and speaking passionately about different things – did it really sink in,” she says.
Of the GA sessions she attended, Levin was most intrigued by “It’s Complicated: Challenges and Opportunities in Jewish-African American Relations,” presented by William Daroff, JFNA senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington, D.C. office. She was also surprised to be among many politically conservative Jews, and that the GA program included a session geared toward Republican Jews.
Nonetheless, the overall atmosphere evoked shared purpose.
“I was surprised by the general unity of most people attending the conference; no matter your political differences, it seems like everyone was really there to support each other as Jews,” says Anna Rubin (’20) from Wayland, Mass., a co-chair of the Connecticut College Hillel board’s Freshman Programming Committee. “I learned that the Jewish community will always back each other up when push comes to shove. For example, this election, no matter who you voted for, was definitely a time for Jews to come together and bond. This was reiterated by many speakers at the GA and this was very encouraging. Jews will always be there for each other, especially in the darkest of times.”
Smith was struck by the size of the GA gathering. “I felt surrounded by passionate, driven, and inspired people, and all of them were Jewish,” she says. “It was the first time that I had been exposed to anything like that. I was really inspired by the large community that was present.”
For one student in particular, the GA served to strengthen professional aspirations. Simon Luxemburg, a Conn College junior and native of South Windsor, has already built a track record of Jewish involvement over the past three years. He is immediate past president of Connecticut College Hillel, where he continues to serve on the executive board. He is also a member of the college’s Halal and Kosher Food Task Force, a group of students, faculty, and staff who work to increase the food offerings on campus as a way to create a more inclusive community. A third-year student of Hebrew, Luxemburg was an intern last summer at the Jewish People Policy Institute think tank in Jerusalem, supported by a Leah S. Rubin ‘32 Endowed Travel & Research Fund for Judaic Studies scholarship. He will spend spring semester at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studying in the Nachshon Project, a program for rising juniors considering careers in Jewish communal life.
At the GA, Luxemburg increased his understanding about important aspects of the Jewish community.
“I learned a lot about various Jewish groups out there that cater towards certain issues (i.e. disaster relief, human rights, civil rights, etc.),” he says. “While I have always known that such groups exist, the GA provided me the opportunity to learn more about certain organizations that I had never previously known about. As an aspiring future Jewish communal professional, I found great worth in learning about these various groups within the greater North American Jewish community.”
Luxemburg was also inspired by the intellectual timbre of the event — “a space to analytically explore a wide range of topics that North American Jews will face in the upcoming years,” he says. “Additionally, I learned a lot about different Jewish and Israel-related activities from the various exhibition booths. This was valuable as I move forward in my Jewish journey.”
After his semester in Jerusalem, when he returns to campus as a senior next fall, Luxemburg plans to apply what he learned at the GA.
“The GA afforded me the opportunity to network with Jewish communal professionals, and get to know a large number of other Hillel students. From these Hillel students, I learned a lot about other unique programs that Hillels have put on, some of which I would like to try at Connecticut College.”
For freshman Anna Rubin, a Wayland, Mass. native who serves on the Connecticut College Hillel executive board, the GA was a springboard to explore her Jewish identity and continue her involvement in campus Jewish life.
“I came away from the GA with a sense of inspiration and hope that our Jewish community will thrive,” she says. “The most compelling lesson I learned came from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who said, ‘Never miss a crisis’ … [meaning] that you can take a crisis and turn that into the best thing to happen to you. … He went on to say that the Jewish community has always been there to support each other, especially in the darkest of times. … This sense of unity and positivity was reinforced by many speakers at the GA. I will bring this inspiration to all that I do – my studies, extracurricular activities, and my day-to-day activities with friends and family.”
CAP: At the GA Conference (l to r): Simon Luxemburg, Anna Rubin, Sam Girioni, Becca Smith, Susannah Alfred, Rachel Levin, Jewish Federation of Eastern CT Executive Director Jerry Fischer, Conn College director of the Zachs Hillel House Rabbi Susan Schein.