The year 2008, and its global economic downturn, cannot end soon enough for many. Nevertheless, in the face of worldwide pessimism, Hillel continued to provide a source of hope to the Jewish community through a series of newsworthy milestones.
Hillel marked the organization’s 85th anniversary, the second Hillel Summit on the University and the Jewish Community, the opening of five brand new Hillel buildings in Israel, Stanford, Illinois and Pennslyvania and groundbreaking ceremonies for two more in Atlanta and Milwaukee as well as dozens of Israel at 60 celebrations on campuses across the globe.
Israel at 60 celebrations on campus.
But 2008 was also marred with tragedy for Jewish students in both the United States and Israel. Just days after the death of Congressman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to be elected to U.S. Congress, Hillel students expressed their grief and solidarity following a deadly rocket attack at Sapir College. In a statement, Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone called the bombing “a violation of the very nature of the academic enterprise which fosters the development of young people and supports the pursuit of knowledge for all mankind.”
A few weeks later, American students would again mourn with Israel when eight Jewish peers were killed at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem in March.
In a show of support for the State of Israel, Hillel students at a number of American universities including the University of California, Berkeley, petitioned for Israel study abroad programs to be reinstated following a 2002 suspension that accompanied the U.S. State Department’s decision to place Israel on a travel advisory list. Before 2008 came to a close, the University of California system announced it would reopen its study abroad programs in Jerusalem.
The 11 months leading up to one of America’s historic presidential elections was an exciting time for politically active Hillel students across the country. After speaking with supporters of both the Democratic and Republican parties, Hillel was responsible for sending a Jewish student representative to each party’s national convention in Minneapolis and Denver.
Hillel activist Aram Zucker-Scharf of Mason Votes.
As Election Day drew close, all eyes turned to Battleground Virginia where a Hillel activist at George Mason University was leading a campus-wide initiative to get out the vote. Six weeks after President-elect Barack Obama secured his victory, Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone was invited to join the Obama Transition Team in Washington, D.C., for a discussion on the American Jewish future.
Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life was thrust into the national spotlight at the very start of 2008, having just released its LGBTQ Resource Guide for campus professionals, the most comprehensive Jewish resource ever published for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community.
As part of Hillel’s Five-Year Strategic Plan to double the number of Jewish students involved in meaningful Jewish experiences on campus, the practice of engagement took center stage in 2008. From alternative spring breaks in South America to Taglit-Birthright Israel trips and a pilot program for Jewish immigrants in the former Soviet Union, Hillel professionals around the globe have stepped up their efforts to involve Jewish students in Jewish campus life.
On New York City campuses, the ICHEIC (International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims) program fostered relationships between Hillel students and local Holocaust survivors.
In Portland, Oregon, more than 1,000 Jewish students at Portland State University, Reed and Lewis & Clark Colleges are now served by a local Hillel known as PDX (or Greater Portland) Hillel. “We are filling a great gap in our community’s organization structure," said Rob Shlachter, PDX Hillel board chair and member of Hillel’s board of directors. "For too long the large student population in Portland has not been a part of our community."
In August and September, Hillel hosted two engagement institutes for East Coast and West Coast student interns involved with Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative and Peer Network Engagement Internship. The 2008 institutes yielded the highest turnouts and were widely considered the most successful of years past.
NYU vigil for Mumbai victims.
As 2008 comes to a close, Hillel and the global Jewish community have been shaken by tragedy. Terror attacks in Mumbai claimed the lives of two Jewish outreach workers – members of Hillel’s partner, the Chabad movement – and brought two nuclear powers to the brink of confrontation. The revelation that billionaire investor Bernard Madoff allegedly swindled dozens of Jewish charities out of millions of dollars has devastated many nonprofits. Meanwhile Israel’s retaliatory strikes in Gaza have inspired Jewish support.
With groups on over 500 campuses, Hillel will continue to make news in 2009 and help Jewish students to interpret their world through a Jewish lens.