Although most Jews now feel welcomed and embraced by higher education, that wasn’t always the case.
“Once upon a time, Jews on college campuses felt lost and alone,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “They were often not admitted to fraternities and were housed with other Jews. They really were eager to gain a university education, which they thought was the ticket to success in America. But they suffered. First, you had the Menorah Societies on various campuses, and then Hillel served as a kind of oasis for Jewish students — a place where they could meet one another, share common interests, observe Shabbat and hold prayers.”
Nearly 100 years ago, the college campus organization Hillel International was founded and named for the famed sage who is credited with the concepts of the Golden Rule and “if I am not for myself, who is for me?” Hillel is now the largest Jewish campus group with more than 550 active chapters internationally.
This mission of making a Jewish oasis on campus remains part of the agenda for the directors of Hillel at Johns Hopkins University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the University of Maryland, College Park; Goucher College and Towson University.
Rabbi Josh Snyder, executive director of Goucher Hillel, says that learning more about and connecting with students’ Jewish heritages is one way to go about achieving this goal of seeking out the next generation of Jewish leaders.
“Hillel [can be] an opportunity to grow their Jewish selves and their own confidence as they find their own inspiration to move on to adult Jewish lives from the lives that they’ve had as young people,” Snyder said. “Often, in many cases, they haven’t had many at all. We get to spark that for them.”
Noam Bentov, executive director of Hopkins Hillel, says that the “pluralistic mission” of the organization is what initially drew him to it in 2004 and what draws students to it now.
“Hillel is where any Jewish identity can be celebrated,” he said. “People can explore their identity, and I found a lot of meaning in that.”
Though she is only two-and-a-half months into her stint as director of Towson Hillel, Lisa Bodziner says her connection to the group is deeply personal.
“My family became religious when I was leaving the house for college,” she recalled. “When I walked into Hillel as a [University of] Wisconsin Badger, it felt like a really safe place. The rabbi there and her husband, who was the executive director, really became my religious leaders during my college experience.”
Sarna said the task of fostering future rabbis, cantors, community leaders and teachers is “enormously important.”
“I’ve seen statistics that suggest that around 70 percent of Jewish leaders will likely be retiring or leaving their positions within the decade,” the professor said. “We need a new generation of Jewish leaders, and historically, Jewish students who have been leaders on their campus, like in Hillel, later become first-class community leaders.”
In terms of developing a Jewish identity during undergraduate years, the directors play a crucial role in that process. From spearheading services to activities across the campus, Hillel heads are entrenched in their work. Their time with Hillel has provided no dearth of memorable moments.
“We see the fruits of the labor,” said Rabbi Jeremy Fierstein, UMBC Hillel director. “Recently, a personal and professional win for me was the Freedom Seder that we put together, where we had four speakers, one of whom was a student discussing their experience of first solidifying their queer identity and moving into a trans identity. There were about 140 folks in the room, and it brought tears to people’s eyes.”
Bentov has seen former students venture further into the world of Judaism with pursuits ranging from rabbinical studies to working for Jewish organizations. And Rabbi Ari Israel, who has directed Maryland Hillel in College Park for 15 years, has seen three former students become Hillel directors.
“When you’re connecting with a student who comes in with one ideology of what they want to do long term and then they shift gears and say, ‘I actually want to impact the Jewish community,’” said Israel, “you’re there every step of the way, and you’re helping them, nurturing them, encouraging them when they fall. When they fail, how do they fall forward? How do they continue to move? There’s beauty there.”
One of Israel’s students, sophomore Amanda Spector, already has felt the impact of Hillel in her short college career.
“I definitely think it’s made me want to continue [Jewish traditions] after school,” she said. “Especially at a huge school like Maryland, it’s nice to know that there’s such a strong Jewish community. I can choose whether I want to be a big part of it or go when I want. That’s not something that I think a lot of people can say when they go to school. I’m really appreciative for everything Hillel has done.”
Aylat Lifshitz, who is in her final year at Towson, knew she wanted to be involved with Jewish life on campus and is glad she gravitated toward Hillel.
“Being able to be a part of Hillel and then become as involved as I did, meeting most of my college friends through that, has really helped me feel more connected,” Lifshitz said. “I’m connected in the way I practice with my family and then with my roommate in our apartment. I also have that connection to a larger community.”
But leading Hillel is not always about the good times. There are challenges that the directors have to deal with on a daily basis.
Snyder says “general student wellness” is one of his bigger concerns.
“How do they handle stress and anxiety?” the rabbi asked rhetorically. “What resources do they have on campus outside of health centers and peers to establish healthy behavior? We see ourselves as a potential resource in all that. We’re there to support Jewish students when they’re challenged. In university settings, there are challenges, particularly ones about Israel, that we see as opportunities for us to help students think through how to respond productively and constructively with one another and figure out what those challenges mean for their own identities.”
A recent challenge for his chapter at College Park was proposed boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) legislation. But last month, a Student Government Association bill that called for the university to boycott the Jewish state died before reaching debate.
In a recent editorial in New York Jewish Week, Israel wrote that the BDS bill was “a mere round of battle in a protracted conflict.”
“We cannot rest on our laurels,” he wrote. “Far more concerning to me is the feeling that our community has a disproportionate focus.”
The rabbi wrote that it is “futile erecting impenetrable fences around the garden if we are failing to tend to our crops.”
“BDS and our vigilant response cannot and must not define the Jewish story. Accepting this to be the case depreciates the value of the Jewish narrative.”
In an interview with the JT, Israel downplayed the bill, saying BDS is not a threat “in any shape or form,” to Jewish life on his campus.
“I think we need to shift the conversation; the Jewish community is not under threat on campuses,” he added. “Individual Jews are thriving. I always talk about distinguishing between being uncomfortable and unsafe. That’s OK; you’re going to hear different opinions, and they’re not going to agree with you all the time.”
Israel characterized this discourse between students as “healthy.”
“That’s growth through discomfort,” he said. “Unsafe is where a Jewish student is threatened. BDS is not a movement that is making Jewish students unsafe. We have to be clear about that. There’s a lot of noise, and that attracts resources and attention. Our agenda is to create [metaphorical] Jewish music.”
Sarna said issues surrounding the Jewish state present a “significant challenge” for Hillel.
“Young Jews who are for one reason or another disillusioned with Israel or belong to anti-Israel organizations feel that somehow they are excluded from Hillel,” he said. “On the one hand, there are boundaries within the Jewish community. I remember many years ago when Jews for Jesus deeply complained that they were barred from Hillel events.”
The professor continued that on the other hand, the organization wants to reach out to as many young Jews as possible. Similar to Israel, Sarna believes that open dialogue is one way to bridge that gap of differing political viewpoints.
“Historically, one knows that college radicals of one generation often become the communal leaders 20 to 30 years later,” Sarna said. “If we want to make sure that can continue to happen, we’ve got to be open. I think young Jews come to college only having known members of their own community. They don’t know anyone else. Ideally, Hillel is a place where you learn about other Jewish movements. That means we talk about a community where Jews of different movements and ideologies can interact civilly, and [we talk about] how to promote those kind of conversations.”
Lifshitz, who served as a past student president of the Towson Hillel, finds that a common challenge for the group is how they go about reaching out to students of all backgrounds.
“[It’s] figuring out how to have a balance where you’re not seen as an organization that’s ‘too Jewish’ or ‘not Jewish enough,’ and finding that balance of programming that is social, religious, but maybe not too religious,” she said. “It’s being able to do all different types of programming and figuring out how those appeal to students who are either interested in Judaism or practice Judaism in different ways.”
Investing in Hillel’s Future
The directors have noticed that their respective campuses are investing in Hillel more than ever, and not only financially. For all of their groups, the future looks promising, but there are questions that still linger.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities in front of us,” Snyder said of the Goucher branch. “Interfaith Shabbat dinners are a leading opportunity. How can we encourage our students to understand and express their Jewish identity in an interfaith environment and understand the faiths of others? Those lenses can often create connections rather than barriers between other identities.”
And as the Towson area’s Jewish population grows, Bodziner wonders about her group’s place in all of it.
“There’s a personal long-term goal of getting Towson Hillel to be a part of the growing Towson story,” she said. “So many young Jewish families are moving there; how can we see the Hillel thrive as much as the campus and the whole Jewish community as it makes its way into Towson?”
Bentov and Israel both stress the importance of making Hillel a valuable asset on campus.
“We want to create value for the university,” Bentov said. “We have all been in touch with our university presidents. Ours [Ronald J. Daniels] was here lighting the [menorah the] first night of Chanukah. I want to make sure we reciprocate that relationship and build on that.”
Israel stressed further to “allies, donors and friends” that Hillel is changing the Jewish community “for the better.”
“All of us have to fundraise,” he said. “How do we get that story across? That we’re the nexus of the next generation of leaders who are making a difference and will continue to make one. It gets harder every year, and our stories get better every year.”
All five directors agreed with Israel in that Hillel attendance has either risen or remained steady within their respective programs. They also noted that perhaps this is because Jewish freshmen (and college students in general) seek a sense of belonging.
“Our attendance numbers are great, our Birthright numbers are up, and leadership numbers are up,” said Israel. “Twenty years ago, you had to pay to join, you had to be a member. Alumni will ask, ‘How many members do you have?’ And the answer is none, but we have thousands of students who are connected.”