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Conversation with Lisa Pleskow Kassow

Set to retire, the head of Trinity Hillel reflects on 20 years spent establishing a thriving Jewish life for students on campus. 

By Stacey Dresner

HARTFORD, Connecticut – Lisa Pleskow Kassow became executive director of Trinity Hillel in 2001 just as the brand new Zachs Hillel House was being constructed. 

All at once, Hillel went from being housed in a small nearby apartment in a two-family home on Crescent Street in Hartford to a beautiful 8,000-square-foot center on campus for Trinity students to gather for Jewish cultural, religious, social, and educational programming.

“I always say about the new Zachs Hillel House – not so new anymore – that we went from the ridiculous to the sublime in one fell swoop,” Kassow laughs.

Coming on board eight months before the building’s completion, Kassow arrived, set to establish a thriving center for Jewish life at Trinity. And she had the background to make that goal come to fruition. 

Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., at the age of 17, Kassow spent a year in Israel. She returned home and got her BFA in art from Carnegie-Mellon University. 

A painter by training, she fell in love with photography while in Israel and after making Aliyah in 1978, she worked in Jerusalem as a photojournalist, winning the Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism in 1990. She continued her work as a photographer after coming to Hartford and served as the director of adult education at the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center in West Hartford (now the Mandell JCC).  She later became the JCC’s director of arts, culture, and education and founded the Hartford Jewish Film Festival, which continues today. Along the way she also received an MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion.

She left the JCC to head up Trinity Hillel. During her tenure, she received the Exemplar of Excellence Award from Hillel International in 2017 and the 2008 Jewish Vision Award of the Charter Oak Cultural Center.

Now 20 years later, Kassow is set to retire and the search for a new executive director is under way. Kassow, who lives in West Hartford with her husband Sam Kassow, Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity, recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about her years at Trinity Hillel and her plans for the future.

JEWISH LEDGER: Did you grow up with a strong Jewish background?

LISA KASSOW: Yes, I grew up in a highly identified Jewish home. My family was conservative. My grandfather was president of our synagogue.

I was active as a kid in the synagogue. I was also a child of my time. I had a wanderlust and I wanted to see the world, and I was anxious to get out there quickly. I graduated from high school at 16. I told my parents that I wanted to go to France, because I had studied French in high school and loved the language, and my parents basically said, “Well, that’s nice. You can go to Israel.” I did my first year of university at Tel Aviv University at the age of 17. Let’s just say it wasn’t a particularly concentrated academic year for me. 

I thank my parents and grandparents for instilling in me my love of Yiddishkeit and Jewish culture. Thinking about early influences, my mom was very involved in Jewish organizations locally. She was in charge of a large exhibit of Israeli art that came to Buffalo, and I remember being very affected by many of the works. Perhaps that was my first experience of bringing those interests together. I was about 10 or 11.

You were a Jewish communal professional before coming to Trinity Hillel. What attracted you to that position?

Well, it was an exciting opportunity. I had been working at the JCC for a number of years and had established the Hartford Jewish Film Festival.  Basically, I felt that I had accomplished what I could there at that time. And to be honest, I was the mother of two small children and the job at the JCC was quite demanding. It required a lot of evenings away from home and it just became a little bit too much to handle. When the job at Trinity came along it seemed like a great opportunity for me and for our family.

When you got to Trinity Hillel what were your goals?

Before I began this role, the Trinity Hillel Advisory Board and college administrators had already completed plans for the Zachs Hillel House with the architectural firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates. Funding had been secured through the generosity of Henry Zachs, Alan Mendelson, and other generous donors to Trinity Hillel. The Zachs Hillel House began construction when I started. We officially opened it about eight months later. So, I simply came in with the house. 

My goal was to establish a strong program of Jewish life at Trinity for the Jewish students, and for the college as a whole. I wanted to establish a place where all students could feel comfortable learning about and participating in Jewish life, regardless of background. All the important elements were in place. There was already a major and minor in both Jewish Studies and Hebrew that had been established by faculty members in numerous disciplines who had come together to create an interdisciplinary program. The Jewish Studies Program at Trinity brings together faculty from the departments of history, religion, modern languages, and culture, etc.  

And we had this magnificent facility, the Zachs Hillel House. The best part of those early years was conceptualizing, along with motivated students, what kind of Jewish center we wanted to build on campus. The position offered, and continues to offer, an opportunity for very creative programming that draws on the depth and breadth of Jewish experience, history, and culture. I am a believer in Mordechai Kaplan’s concept of Judaism as a Civilization, that includes food, art, film, music, Israel, the Diaspora, social justice, the intellectual and spiritual ties that connect us, as well as Jewish holidays and Shabbat. The programmatic possibilities were endless. 

What I learned quickly is that each new academic year is like an empty canvas, with the basic organizational structure of the Jewish calendar. Each year brings a new cohort of students. So, the strength of the program and its success very much depends on the interests, passions, and needs of the students themselves. We also must be proactive in addressing topical issues and themes that emerge because of current events and changes in society. Undergirding it all, I think a good Hillel director must be strongly rooted and knowledgeable about Jewish life, culture, and history. That person also needs to open and flexible to adapt, as the interests and needs of the students change. 

What are some of your favorite memories of your 20 years at Trinity Hillel?

There are a lot. I really have had a wonderful time in this job. I have enjoyed traveling with students and learning about other Jewish communities in the world. I went with a group of students to Uganda to stay with the Abayudaya community. Sam and I led a remarkable group of Trinity students to Poland when the POLIN Museum was under construction. Going through the museum with Sam and that group of students, watching the whole project come to life, was an unforgettable experience. 

For many years, we had an ongoing Shabbat program that focused on Jewish life around the world. … For example, we would choose a theme, like the Jews of Italy or India or Egypt, invite other affiliated student groups to co-sponsor the evening, together cook a kosher meal from that part of the world in the Hillel kitchen, invite a speaker, usually a Trinity professor, to talk about Jewish life in their area of expertise. Hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish students shared these themed Shabbatot. Everyone learned a lot and had a great time. 

Similarly, in recent years I have offered a class at Hillel called The Jewish Table: Cuisine and Culture, along with my friend and Hebrew professor emerita Michal Ayalon. But that is only second best to traveling to these places and experiencing them along with students! 

Another highlight has been spending time in Israel with students. The most recent trip, called Fresh Perspectives, was in August 2019. The trip focused on political, social, and economic realities in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The students were mostly not Jewish, leaders of different student groups and organizations on campus. They engaged with academics, writers, and thought leaders representing multiple narratives and communities in Israel. It was a fascinating and enriching experience for all of us. 

I have appreciated the chance to expand our understanding of contemporary issues through a Jewish lens. For instance, for Kristallnacht this past November, we brought a film about Holocaust refugees, and paired it with a panel about the Afghani refugee crisis unfolding at that moment. Now, of course, we talk further about the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, as the tragedy unfolds in Ukraine. 

How many students do you think take part in Hillel activities during the year?

It really depends on what we’re doing.  Shabbat is of course a foundational program that can draw from 20 to 80 or so depending on the week. Sometimes it’s very lovely just to have what we call “Family Shabbat” which means Hillel regulars sit around the table, sing table blessings, and just enjoy Shabbat dinner and warm conversation.

Other themed Shabbatot offer opportunities to explore aspects of Jewish life with affinity groups on campus. These events bring in larger numbers of students. For instance, Rainbow Shabbat provides a platform to talk about Tel Aviv as an LGBTQ friendly city, or to share a musical Shabbat service devoted to this theme. Our Annual Sharsheret Hillel Pink Shabbat for Breast Cancer Awareness brings many campus groups together for an evening in support of cancer research.

Regardless of participant numbers, the important point here is that Hillel provides a safe space to not only be Jewish, to celebrate being Jewish, to learn about Judaism and Jewish values, but also to address contemporary issues, concerns, questions, and themes in a welcoming environment, apart from academic life.

One of today’s concerns is the steep rise in antisemitic incidents on American campuses. UConn has dealt with several such incidents. Has Trinity? 

There have been episodes of antisemitism at Trinity, certainly not as egregious as some we have witnessed on other campuses. When things have happened, I’ve been able to work with the ADL and the college administration to address the issue. These instances have been few and far between, in my experience. 

What do you think Hillel organizations can do to combat rising antisemitism on campuses?

First, it is most important for Jewish students to develop and maintain a positive sense of their own Jewish identities. This is especially true for students at a place without a critical mass of fellow Jews. I believe we accomplish this by sharing and celebrating our traditions and heritage with integrity, open-mindedness, and creativity. Hillel professionals at Trinity and elsewhere should be knowledgeable “guides on the side” as students grow in their personal, intellectual, and spiritual identification as emerging Jewish adults. 

Much of the antisemitism on campuses today stems from ignorance about Israel. Ongoing engagement with Israel through programs that highlight cultural diversity, social justice, concern for the environment, and other contemporary issues is essential in combatting this trend. 

I also think it is increasingly important for the experiences of Jews and antisemitism to be included in the entire discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Too often, Jewish professionals are simply not “in the room” and Jewish concerns are not part of that conversation. I would like to see colleges and universities implement educational programs about antisemitism in addition to the focus on identified marginalized populations. In addition, Hillel professionals should be included as members of college teams that address student well-being and mental health, especially as it relates to personal identity. 

And finally…what are your post-Hillel plans?

Painting. A couple of years ago that interest resurfaced in a big way. I also want to take some time to think about what I really want to do in terms of volunteer work; what would feel meaningful to me now and where can I make an impact? I was recently asked to join the board of Hillel Warsaw. That organization and the people there are very close to my heart. I want to be a good board member.

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