Posted by: Wayne L. Firestone, President on 4/15/2008 11:29:00 AM
From the April 18, 2008 edition of The New York Jewish Week.
As the holiday of Passover approaches, it is a good time to reflect on the name of our organization and the central role that Hillel plays in the observance of the Passover seder. For millennia, Jews around the world have partaken of the “Hillel sandwich” -- made up of matza and bitter herbs – which was created by the sage Hillel during the period of the Second Temple to symbolize the bitterness of slavery in Egypt and the hasty exodus from Egypt.
It is no coincidence that nearly 85 years ago, the founders of Hillel chose to adopt the name of this first-century rabbi. Not only were his teachings accepted as the prevailing laws for Jews of his day (and ours), but they also appealed to outsiders as well. Hillel famously told a non-believer that the essence of Judaism was “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn."
Hillel epitomizes the quintessential Jewish educator who is able to create symbolic and meaningful experiences, such as eating the Hillel sandwich, to explain the flight from Egypt, and to distill the wisdom of the Torah into readily understandable and accessible concepts. And, though he lived at a vastly different period in history, he embraced the challenge of passing on his Jewish heritage to a new generation, in the face of competing practices and beliefs. Hillel the Elder sought new ways to inspire the Jews of his age. Hillel the organization is doing the same.
It is a mistake to think that Hillel has altered its focus in our contemporary efforts to double the number of Jewish students who are involved in Jewish life and who have meaningful Jewish experiences. This is not only wrong, it doesn't make sense. Hillel continues in the tradition of our namesake.
Four years ago, Hillel undertook a strategic planning process that has provided us with a wealth of information about the young Jews who populate today’s campuses. A national poll commissioned by Hillel revealed that 78 percent of Jewish students feel that being Jewish is important to them. At the same time, 88 percent said they want Hillels to be welcoming environments for all Jews regardless of their background, and 86 percent want Hillels to be welcoming to everyone on their campus.
These statistics pose a tremendous opportunity and challenge for us: How does the Jewish community leverage students’ Jewish pride to enhance their identity using authentic Jewish experiences that require little background or learning?
Next week, Hillels around the world will create educational and celebratory Seders that speak to students’ varied interests and backgrounds. Among the offerings are a “Chocolate Seder” at Boston University and a “Sorority and Fraternity Seder” at Indiana University. Students in the former Soviet Union will conduct seders for thousands of families and elderly dispersed across vast geographic regions. The University of Washington has a range of offerings in addition to the traditional seder: “Jews of the World,” “Interactive,” “Experiential,” “Women's Seder,” and a social justice-oriented seder called “Egypt to Saipan: Modern Slavery Seder.” Students studying abroad will come together for a Hillel-sponsored seder in Rome. Meanwhile, the University of Florida Hillel will host, of course, a “Gator Seder.”
Many students will invite their non-Jewish peers on campus to witness and to participate in this ancient celebration of freedom. After all, the Haggadah says, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” They will be immersed in Jewish tradition, they will gain a new appreciation for our Jewish heritage, and they may be inspired with new insights into the human struggle for liberation. Hillel himself would be gratified that his tradition lives on today across the world. He would be equally proud that this year tens of thousands of Jewish college students will celebrate Passover on campuses and in communities worldwide thanks to an organization that bears his name.
However, our primary purpose for holding the Seder is to fulfill the Torah’s obligation to tell Jewish students about what happened to their people in Egypt: “And you shall tell your child on that day as follows: Because of this, God did for me, when he took me out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).
The seder is an immersive experience, a multi-sensory lesson in which the students are participants. Teaching young people in this time-honored way is the surest path to strengthen their Jewish identity. Programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel and alternative social justice breaks enable Jewish students of all backgrounds to involve themselves in in-depth Jewish experiences. And, it is the role of today’s Jewish educators to put these experiences in a Jewish context and to build upon them when they return to campus. In this way, our professionals are following in the footsteps of Hillel himself.
The sage Hillel left the Jewish people, and the world, with a remarkable legacy that still resonates today. He taught Jewish pride at a time when Jewish traditions were challenged by Greco-Roman practices. He made Jewish learning accessible to Jews and non-Jews alike. He taught our obligation to take care of our own needs first -- “If I am not for myself, who will be [for me]?” -- without forgetting the needs of others -- “And if I am only for myself, what am 'I'?”
Hillel the Elder taught us to balance being distinctively Jewish and universally human. It is a lesson that Hillel the organization strives to teach students every day.
RE: Learning from the Hillel Sandwich
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