Hillels Welcome New Students with Fresh Fests
August 30, 2005Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friend The first week of college can be overwhelming for new students, but Hillel has helped provide a more personalized introduction to campus with Fresh Fests. Hillels at several campuses, including the University of Delaware, Syracuse University, Washington University, the University of Southern California and George Washington University, are giving small groups of incoming Jewish students the opportunity to get to know their new surroundings – and new friends – in a warm, intimate environment.
"They get to meet their new best friends," said Susan Detwiler, the executive director of Hillel at the University of Delaware. "In the past, we've walked around campus and seen three girls joined at the hip because they met at Freshman Fest."
In its third year of existence, UD Hillel's program has grown exponentially, from 50 participants at the first Freshman Fest in 2003 to 150 who attended this year's event at the end of last week. Perhaps more impressive, according to Detwiler, was the number of returning students who applied to be Freshman Fest facilitators – 58 students for 25 slots.
The two-day event began with early move-in privileges at the university dorms last Thursday and continued through Saturday morning. The program included icebreakers, a sleepover at a vacant store on Main Street owned by UD Hillel supporter Richard Handloff, a tzedek (social justice) program, campus tours, a Jewish activities fair and barbecue and a special Shabbat complete with services, dinner and a performance by an a cappella group.
"This is the point where our Hillel is acting like a federation. We're trying to bring all the Jewish groups and departments together. We're building klal Yisrael (Jewish community) on campus," Detwiler said.
Syracuse University Hillel's Fresh Fest last week was considerably smaller, with 31 new students participating. That suited Assistant Director Marcy Miller just fine, however, since this was the first year Syracuse Hillel sponsored the program, and she found the small size had many advantages.
"It was big enough that you had a nice group, but small enough that it was intimate and everyone got to know one another," Miller said.
Working over the summer with nine upperclassman facilitators, Miller put together a two-day program that included community-service projects throughout the city, a trip to the lake home of Syracuse Hillel Board of Governors member Corinne Smith, a session on diversity with representatives from the university's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) center and a cookout with other campus faith organizations. By all standards, the event was a resounding success, Miller said.
"Feedback has been absolutely unbelievable. People have said to us, 'I can't believe this is your first time doing this,'" she said. "We were all with our jaws on the floor because we didn't expect it to run as smoothly as it did."
Some Hillels have found that traveling off campus is an effective way to build a feeling of community among the freshmen. For several years, St. Louis Hillel at Washington University has brought first-year students to nearby Camp Wyman for its Into the Wild Retreat, and the setting has many advantages, according to Aaron Chusid, the Jewish campus life coordinator at St. Louis Hillel.
"First of all, it's just the experience. Whenever you're doing a retreat-like event, you need that space. I don't think the facility exists on our campus," Chusid said. "Also, many students have Jewish summer camp experience, and we're really re-creating that."
The retreat, which will be held this upcoming Sunday and Monday, will include 150 new students and several upperclassmen who will serve as community development fellows this year. The fellows, who lead small groups of 10-20 students in activities throughout the year, are often past participants of the Into the Wild, as are many student leaders at St. Louis Hillel.
"If I look around the executive board and the community development fellows, I can only think of one who didn't participate or staff the retreat in the past," Chusid said.
Kim Rogoff, the assistant director for student affairs at University of Southern California Hillel, also sees a lot of Fresh Fest veterans among the Hillel leaders on her campus.
"Typically, it's where we see our leaders rise to the top," Rogoff said.
USC Hillel's Fresh Fest also includes a trip off campus to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in southern California, where participants were able to take advantage of the camp-like setting to swim, hike and have small-group discussions about adjusting to college life and their Jewish identities. Sixty students attended this year's event, which was held two weeks ago, and have given enthusiastic feedback to the USC Hillel professionals.
"They really appreciated the opportunity to create social networks on campus ahead of time," Rogoff said. "We see them walking around campus together and coming to Hillel programs together.
One year's participants are often involved in the event planning for the following year, according to Jessica Braunfeld, the Jewish student life coordinator at George Washington University Hillel. Six sophomores have been working with her since February to put together the two-day Fresh Fest at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center near Baltimore for 45 incoming freshmen this week.
"We really tried hard to keep it student-run," Braunfeld said. "For the most part, it's in their hands."
Now in its fifth year, GW Hillel's Fresh Fest schedule includes a ropes course, skits, discussions about Jewish resources on campus and decorating picture frames to display a group photo. Braunfeld hopes that, like in years past, the people in the photo won't be strangers to Hillel throughout their college careers.
"They're just the regular faces we see a lot," she said. "It helps in that when they come to Shabbat, it's not as overwhelming when there are 120 people in the room."