Hillel: Jews on Campus

A changing organization for a changing student body.

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Jewish College Students in the Spotlight

When Richard Joel assumed office in 1988, he inherited a declining organization. It was strapped for funds, and across the nation, Hillel rabbis were locked in power struggles with Federation executives over campus programming and finances. He recognized that, in order to grow, Hillel needed to cut its ties with B'nai B'rith, and in 1994, it did.
College students
Around that time, Hillel found itself pushed back onto the national stage. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that the national intermarriage rate was a staggering 52%, and, while some debated the accuracy of this statistic, the American Jewish community decided to focus its attention and resources on Jewish continuity. Jewish youth and young adults became the focal point of their attention.

Joel's goal was that Hillel would become a solution to this continuity crisis. The organization's motto became "maximizing the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews." Prominent donors such as Edgar M. Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, and Lynn Schusterman began to support the organization. Hillel grew into an international franchise, and now has 27 centers in the Former Soviet Union, nine in Israel, and four in South America.

Hillel in the 21st Century

In its initial years, Hillel functioned as a place on campus where they could socialize with other Jews, eat kosher meals, and attend religious services. Recently, Hillel has worked hard to refashion its image in order to appeal to a population that may not connect to traditional elements of organized Jewish life, and who barely have enough free time to balance academic, social, and personal calendars, let alone attend a Hillel program.

In addition, a recent challenge to Hillel is the growing presence of emissaries from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement on campus. Jewish sociologists observe that Chabad's success on campus depends largely on its ability to create an intimately Jewish “home away from home” for students, a phrase that used to characterize Hillel Houses in the first half of the 20th century.

Most campus Hillels today offer a wide range of opportunities, from more traditional communal Shabbat dinners to free Birthright trips to Israel and Alternative Spring Break programs that stress social justice and charity work.

However, as any Hillel professional will admit, the organization is only reaching a small fraction of Jewish students. To this end, Hillel created the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, a project that charges 12 students on each of several college campuses to build relationships with uninvolved Jewish students during the school year.

The project hypothesizes that student-to-student engagement will be more effective than interactions between students and professionals. It could not be further from the rabbinic-led model put forth by Rabbi Frankel in Hillel's early days, but if the story from UC-San Diego is any indication, Hillel is not an organization that is averse to trying new things.

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Preston Neal

Preston Neal, an L.A.-based freelance writer, was the 2007-2008 Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow for Hillel at Binghamton University. He holds a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies with High Honors from Brandeis University.