by Aaron Leibel
Washington Jewish Week Staff
She set up a table at the university dining hall two weeks ago and within an hour, 10 students had signed up, says Rebecca Pepkowitz, the new program director for Hillel at Gallaudet University.
"Every six minutes, a Jewish kid walked through that door and ran over to join Hillel," says Pepkowitz excitedly. "This exceeded my wildest expectations. These kids are hungry for Jewish contact, and I aim to feed them."
Hillel officially came to Gallaudet last week to provide services to the estimated 50-100 Jewish students there (Pepkowitz is convinced the true number is much higher). A reception on Tuesday of last week celebrated her hiring.
Pepkowitz wants Hillel at Gallaudet to become "the happening place" for local deaf Jews, the Hillel professional stresses, through the institution of Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, Hebrew classes and other opportunities for social interaction.
Her hopes for what Hillel can accomplish are apparently shared by students at the university. Rachel Wexelbaum says "its about time that Gallaudet has a Hillel." The 23-year-old graduate student from Naples, Fla., who is studying for her Ph.D. in audiology, sees Hillel helping students "grow socially and spiritually together." She hopes the new Hillel will sponsor social get-togethers, lectures, Shabbat services and dinners with other Hillels.
Micah Saul Brown, a sophomore majoring in international relations from Portland, Ore., says having Hillel is important "because, many times, deaf people born to Jewish hearing families are shut out of truly understanding what it means to be Jewish." The Gallaudet Hillel will allow those students "to discover their heritage and religion," he says, and feel a bit less isolated on campus.
Brown intends to take advantage of Hillel's presence both in terms of its programs and because of the opportunity the organization will afford him "to maintain his Jewish identity on campus by being able to relate to other deaf Jews."
Pepkowitz's background would seem to make her a good fit for the job. She studied anthropology and Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University and has a master's degree in the education of deaf and hearing-impaired students from Columbia University Teachers College.
She also has experience teaching special education and Jewish history -- currently she is teaching a class on the history of Reform Judaism at Har Sinai Reform synagogue in Baltimore. And, perhaps most important, she was the Jewish chaplain to students at Gallaudet in 1985 for about 10 months before leaving the post -- she decided she needed to pay the rent and eat, she jokes.
The program director, who enthusiastically signs during a visit to WJW , is already working on her first project at Gallaudet -- a birthright israel trip specifically designed for deaf students. Birthright provides free trips to Israel for young Jews ages 18-25.
Planned for the end of May, the trip will include Jewish Gallaudet students as well as students from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the California State University at Northridge and any other hearing-impaired students who wish to take part.
The deaf and hearing-impaired students' tour will be slower paced, explains Pepkowitz. While other Birthright participants can look at the sights of Israel and at the same time listen to the explanation from their guide, the deaf students need to view the scene and then look at the person signing the explanation.
However, she stresses that the deaf students will eat and socialize with other Birthright-Israel participants at the end of the day's touring.
Pepkowitz also is planning a Purim exchange with American University. Gallaudet students will go to AU with their interpreters for the reading of Megillat Esther, the story of Purim. On the following night, AU Jewish students will be invited to Gallaudet for a masquerade ball.
In addition, the Hillel program director is working on a signed seder , although she stresses that some Gallaudet students would prefer being invited to local Passover celebrations at the homes of hearing and deaf people.
Pepkowitz also says she wants to build a library for Jewish learning in her office on campus.
During the past several weeks, she has received many e-mails from Jewish deaf adults across the country asking for social introductions to Gallaudet students.
This highlights another problem she intends to deal with -- intermarriage, the rate of which among deaf and hearing-impaired Jews is "astronomical," Pepkowitz says.
Pepkowitz has an ambitious agenda -- especially for a one-day-a-week employee whose program shares a room on campus with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).
Gallaudet previously had been served by a Jewish students' association, explains Dr. Shulamith Reich Elster of Hillel of Greater Washington, who hired Pepkowitz.
However, financial support from Miriam Friedman of Atlantic City and her children Harriet and Greg Friedman of Potomac, a grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington's United Jewish Endowment Fund and a designation as a Soref campus (a campus with few Jewish students eligible to receive grants from Hillel International) have enabled Hillel to come to Gallaudet.
Pepkowitz says one of her primary tasks will be to apply for grants that will allow her to spend additional time at the university and expand Hillel services.
Pepkowitz personifies the new breed of Hillel professionals, says Jeff Rubin, director of communications at Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, "able administrators who are committed to the Jewish community and Jewish renaissance and are able to put resources into the hands of students."
This story was published on Thu, Feb 14, 2002.
Please visit the Washington Jewish Week at http://www.washingtonjewishweek.com