By Nikki Feldt
More than 40 high-school students recently received an early introduction to the place many will soon call "home" at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Hillel's second annual Future Illini Shabbaton. The local Hillel professionals and students were thrilled to welcome the students and give them an opportunity to observe firsthand the growing Jewish community in this diverse college town.
"We encourage students to visit our campus and explore all Illinois has to offer. By partnering with Hillel, prospective Jewish students get a glimpse of campus life beyond our traditional campus visit," said Stacey Kostell, the admissions director for the university.
The high school students participated in a typical Shabbat at Hillel, complete with Friday night and Saturday services and meals. At the same time, they were able to explore the college campus through an official admissions tour and on their own during free time. The weekend also featured one program per day that focused on Israel and how to maintain a relationship with Israel while in college. The students had an opportunity to meet with current UIUC students involved in Israel activism and to discuss with them specific ways that Israel is represented and promoted in Champaign-Urbana. Other exciting programs throughout the weekend included late night broomball, an admissions talk and a bagel bar with the Jewish students in the Greek system.
Visiting students were able to experience the extent to which Hillel can truly accommodate one's transition and move to college. Knowing that there is an accepting and thriving Jewish community within the university puts many students at ease about their college decisions and moving away from home. Each student witnessed the warm and welcoming environment that Hillel offers – an atmosphere where students from all backgrounds can meet, explore and celebrate Jewish life and culture in a pluralistic manner that welcomes all.
"It is important for future college students to see campus life through a Jewish lens. While our hope is that these students will all end up in Champaign, the weekend impacted their decision to get involved Jewishly wherever they attend," said Joel Schwitzer, the executive director of Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Most students agreed that their favorite parts of the weekend were learning about college life at UIUC, including how they can participate in Jewish life on campus.
"What I enjoyed most about the weekend was having the opportunity to view Jewish life on a college campus while at the same time having loads of fun with my friends," said Eli Miller, junior at Chicagoland Jewish High School.
Since the first Shabbaton took place only a year ago, the buzz about Jewish life at UIUC has been traveling through Jewish communities around the country. Not only was this year's Shabbaton twice as large as last year's event, it brought four East Coast high-school students to this Midwestern college town.
"This weekend definitely affected my decision because I have decided to come to Illinois," said Leah Tanen, a high-school senior from Maryland.
Nikki Feldt is a sophomore at UIUC.