University of Virginia Hillel is kicking off the new school year by launching its Public Policy Institute, a new initiative that will provide students the opportunity to learn about issues of concern to the Jewish community and equip them with the skills necessary to advocate for them in the state legislature, Congress and local community.
Four students will serve as Public Policy Institute fellows and will spearhead advocacy efforts on four action areas this year: hunger, stem-cell research, the genocide in Sudan and equality for same-sex couples. By bringing guest experts and seasoned activists to campus, the fellows will educate the student body about their issues and train them to advocate for them on the university, state and national level.
The idea for the program grew out of the success of last semester's Week of Conscience for Darfur, a weeklong series of events that called attention to the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. UVA Hillel led a coalition of student organizations, including the Muslim Student Association, Minority Rights Council and STAND, in organizing teach-ins, bracelet sales and a benefit concert, and hundreds of students participated during the week. UVA Hillel's leadership made many people see the organization in a new light, according to UVA Hillel President Nicole Luna.
"People said, 'Wow, I didn't realize Jews cared about this issue so much.' They were impressed that Hillel was doing something for non-Jews," Luna said.
The project's popularity gave UVA Hillel Director Brian Cohen the idea to expand the organization's Tzedek (social justice) programming in a way that would particularly resonate with UVA students.
"We're a growing program, and we're trying to find the areas where we can lend the most value-added to the university," Cohen said. "Community service is a big part of the culture of the university, so I thought, what if we take the idea of a community service program and shift it to a public policy focus?"
Around the same time, a representative from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington contacted Cohen to say there was funding available for initiatives outside the DC region. The JCRC had an enthusiastic response to his idea, and together with the JCRC in Richmond, Va., alumni with connections in politics and student leaders, the Public Policy Institute was born.
Now with a strong network of support in place, Cohen and Luna are recruiting the first class of fellows. Luna said they received an "overwhelmingly positive response" to an e-mail about the initiative that was sent to the UVA Hillel list, and many students who have expressed interest have not been active in Hillel before.
"They're students who have not been involved in Jewish life at the university – they hadn't found their niche," Cohen said. "We're really excited about that."
The students' enthusiasm for the program isn't surprising to Luna, who says UVA students are characteristically innovative in their approach to community service.
"UVA students like to take things into their own hands. They're very used to getting out there and making a difference," she said. "But bringing everyone who cares under a Jewish umbrella is unprecedented."
Students who are interested in becoming a fellow or learning more about the program should contact Jonah Zinn, UVA Hillel's director of Jewish student life.