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Staten Island's Wagner College Hillel Thrives

by Hillel News |Aug 07, 2009|Comments


Wagner College.
Wagner College.
In 2003, five Wagner College students met with college president Dr. Richard Guarasci and his wife Carin in their home atop Grymes Hill, Staten Island overlooking Manhattan, to establish the Wagner College Hillel. Today in 2009, Wagner's Hillel is among the most active spiritual and cultural student organizations on campus, regularly attracting large crowds from the dozens of official members and first time participants just seeking out a campus Jewish connection. In just six years, what accounts for our success on a campus with no previous history of sustained Jewish life? To answer that question, we need to tell the Wagner story and understand how our Hillel expands upon that narrative.

Wagner is a private liberal arts college of 1900 undergraduate students. Founded by immigrants in 1883, Wagner has evolved into one of the finest undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the nation, with a diverse student body hailing from 39 different states and 13 countries. Our theatre program is ranked number three in the nation according to Princeton Review.

Most of all, we are highly regarded for our nationally-acclaimed curriculum "The Wagner Plan." The Wagner Plan incorporates our longstanding commitment to the liberal arts, experiential learning and interdisciplinary education with our geographical location and enduring bond with New York City. It brings the theory students learn in class directly to the community through a vibrant campus-wide service program engaging students throughout their four years on campus.

Since participation in the broader society in which we live is the lifeblood of Wagner's campus life, our Hillel was born with close links to the area Jewish community. From its very inception, Wagner College Hillel was supported by a college affinity group called the "Chai Society." The purpose of the Chai Society is to provide for Jewish life on campus while creating a bridge between the community and Hillel. To that end there are a variety of forums connecting students and community members, such as lunch and learns, joint programming with the Staten Island JCC, and special joint gathering for students and Chai Society supporters such as dinner before a play at our student theatre.

Wagner's Hillel has as an essential part of its core identity and programming community service and social justice. It raises awareness and funds for non-profits and Hillel members are active in a variety of service projects such as Habitat for Humanity.

Convinced that diversity means more than simply having lots of different backgrounds on campus, Hillel participates in a deepened approach to pluralism that means Hillel student members are going into Wagner classrooms discussing Jewish values, and inviting the whole campus population to Hillel events. We believe that Jewish tradition ought to be a resource for the world in our time, when so many young people are questioning the assumptions that drove our social and economic lives until recently.

Hillel recruits and sends members on a unique Wagner College multi-faith trip to Israel, led by a Lutheran Pastor and myself as Rabbi. Students, Jewish and Christian, spend fall and spring semesters learning about the history of ancient and modern Israel. They spend one week in Israel itself visiting the holy sites and meeting with representatives of different population sectors. Upon their return, these students present their findings and reflections in a public program. This trip is Wagner college creation. I believe it could be a national model of college missions to Israel that foster tolerance complemented by academic rigor.

Of course, we offer the fare most important to so many entering the Hillel orbit: social and cultural events for students, Shabbat and holiday programs, religious services, and Jewish learning. We've found that more and more Jewish students are applying to Wagner because we offer a Hillel. We've also found more currently enrolled students identifying as Jewish and participating in Jewish life through Hillel. While most of our Jewish students come from secular or less traditionally observant homes, we are attracting observant students who keep kosher and attend synagogue regularly. These facilities are available. We are thrilled that our Jewish community is united and yet made up of young Jewish men and women with diverse Jewish identities.

Embedded in this very special campus is a vibrant and blossoming Jewish life seamlessly connected to the Wagner ethos of learning, service, and a diversity rich in its communal opportunities for students and community members together. Our students emerge not just as Hillel leaders, but as campus leaders. Our Hillel emerges not just as enriching for Jewish students, but as a vital organization for the whole college community.

Rabbi Abraham Unger, Ph.D.
Campus Rabbi and Faculty Advisor, Wagner College Hillel
Assistant Professor and Director of Urban Programs
Department of Government and Politics, Wagner College

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