By Lisa Woolfson
Hillel International recognized Towson University Hillel for their Homing Shabbat Innovation program, which supplies conversation guides for students to use during Shabbat dinners.
At the Hillel International Global Assembly, held virtually Dec. 14 and 15, Hillel International announced that Towson Hillel had received the annual Joseph Meyerhoff Award for Jewish Educational Vision for its HSI program. Towson Hillel was the only one this year to receive the award, which recognizes campus Hillels that find creative and innovative ways to engage Jewish students, especially those that otherwise would not be a part of the on-campus Jewish community.
“[Towson] Hillel was recognized for providing a meaningful and an affordable Shabbat dinner program at home where students could lead conversations and engage small groups of students, many of whom had not previously been engaged in their community,” said Matthew Berger, the Hillel International vice president of strategic action programs and communications.
As part of the HSI program, Towson Hillel provides nine different guides on its website, each based on a different topic, such as justice, love or friendship. A Shabbat dinner host selects one of the topics. When guests begin to arrive at the dinner, the host asks a “pre-dinner schmooze” question. Once all the guests arrive, and challah and appetizers are served, three different participants each read a short text. Then the host asks questions related to the text and leads a discussion. When the main course is served, there are more texts and questions, and the process repeats once again when dessert is served.
According to the guide, conversation can veer off-topic because HSI is meant to be social, not just educational.
This program was rolled out in 2019. The idea for the innovation program came from Towson University Hillel Assistant Director Jake Campbell. Members of Towson Hillel worked on the curriculum with their team program director, rabbinic intern and Israel fellow.
The program has slowed down a bit during the pandemic, but is still being used.
“Those that are comfortable can certainly participate in a HSI Zoom-hosted Shabbat and those that are observant can use the guide and make the meal in advance,” said Lisa Bodziner, Towson University Hillel executive director, who resides in Mount Washington and attends Ner Tamid.
Towson Hillel submitted the HSI project for the award, knowing it was a very competitive field.
Bodziner was not told in advance that Towson Hillel had won the award, so she was very excited to hear the news.
“We were just amazed and so proud of the work and our students,” she said.
She was also excited that the award was named after Joseph Meyerhoff since the Meyerhoffs are a well-known, philanthropic family in Baltimore.
The award does not come with a cash prize, but Bodziner said it’s wonderful for their brand and that Towson Hillel will be receiving a certificate.
Towson Hillel is already in talks to expand HSI. Many universities have reached out to them to learn more about the program.
“Despite everything, it’s an incredible time for Towson University and our Jewish students on campus,” Bodziner said. “We’re excited to see how we continue to grow.”
Lisa Woolfson is a freelance writer.