By LISETTE DOLGIN
Hillels Around Chicago held its Seventh Annual Shabbaton for Russian students in February 2010.
Something remarkable has been happening in Chicago for over 10 years, reinventing the college experience for thousands of young local Jews.
Hillels Around Chicago-the Hillel Foundation for Jewish students at Columbia College, DePaul University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Northeastern Illinois University, Oakton Community College, The School of the Art Institute and Roosevelt Universityâ€”is one of the fastest growing Hillels in Illinois.
"It's a community of Jewish students from different campuses building their Jewish identities together," explains Michelle Maer, executive director.
Hillels Around Chicago has developed unique programming designed for urban students, providing multi-campus events that range from volunteer activities and leadership training, to arts programs and events for Russian-speaking students, to Shabbatons and weekends of Jewish learning, to JUF-sponsored Birthright Israel trips.
Hillels Around Chicago began 10 years ago with a single employee, Judy Teller, and a small group of students at Oakton Community College who wanted to engage in Jewish life. Like Oakton, there were other urban and commuter campuses with Jewish students but no organized Jewish presence on campus.
All that changed when Ila Lewis, then chairperson of The Hillels of Illinois Governing Commission, and Paul Saiger, executive director of The Hillels of Illinois, made those students a priority. Lewis recruited the help of Wendy Berger Shapiro and Dan Wander, two leaders in the community, to help obtain a Priority Grant from the Federation.
"Students at many of our local commuter campuses were not getting the same attention as students at campuses like Northwestern and University of Chicago. When Wendy and I were asked to spearhead the development of Hillels Around Chicago, I welcomed the challenge knowing I could have a role in serving Jewish students at our seven campuses and fostering long-term Jewish continuity," Wander said.
"From the beginning, we saw a true Jewish renaissance happening on campus," said Ammi Field Dorevitch, then director of Hillels Around Chicago. "Students with little to no Jewish background were quickly becoming active in Jewish life. Within two to three years, we saw that we were providing the same opportunities as the other Hillel Foundations in Illinois, and began to take steps to become a recognized Hillel Foundation."
Not only did Hillels Around Chicago achieve Foundation status, Dorevitch was nationally recognized for her work andWander received the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award, presented to individuals who demonstrate outstanding commitment to Jewish student life.
Today, Hillels Around Chicago continues to innovate. Its Hillel Arts in the Loop program, which includes Illinois Institute of Technology, The School of the Art Institute, Roosevelt University and Columbia College, is the only one of its kind. Launched in 2006 with a Federation Priority Grant, it connects students to Jewish culture, religion and tradition through the arts, and helps them become more invested in their Jewish community and more closely linked to other Jewish students in Chicago.
"Because there are small student populations at each school, most of our programs are cross-campus," explains Erin Jones, program director for Hillel Arts in the Loop, "I find students are very proactive in creating cross-campus friendships, significantly growing their personal Jewish community. Because we do not have a central location to meet and socialize, students often organize outings for themselves, including holiday celebrations and Shabbat services."
Two other Hillels Around Chicago signature programs include Russian Hillel and DePaul Hillel. Also created by a Priority Grant, Russian Hillel emerged seven years ago and has since provided opportunities and resources to several thousand students. Today, Russian Hillel offers programs and events to about 350 Russian-speaking, young adult members between the ages of 18-30. And through a special partnership between Hillels Around Chicago and DePaul University, DePaul Hillel is now the center for Jewish life on that campus. With a beautiful space and kosher kitchenette, DePaul Hillel offers bi-monthly Shabbat services as well as holiday celebrations.
"There were 650 people in attendance for High holiday services at a Catholic University!" said Nick Liebman, Hillel director at DePaul.
"It's hard to believe it's been 10 years; we've come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Having grown from one employee and a handful of students at Oakton to five full-time, dedicated staff and more than 2,000 students across seven campuses, feels good. None of this would be possible without The Hillels of Illinois, the support of JUF, and of course, Dan and Wendy's vision," Maer said.
Honorees Daniel Wander and Wendy Berger Shapiro.
In recognition of their commitment to building community and fostering Jewish student life, Hillels Around Chicago will honor its founders, Wendy Berger Shapiro and Daniel J. Wander, at a 10th Anniversary Gala Celebration at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 13, at The Spertus Institutes' Crown Family Great Hall, 610 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. For information contact Michelle Maer at (312) 673-2352 or MichelleMaer@juf.org.
The Hillels Around Chicago is a department of The Hillels of Illinois, a partner in serving our community, supported by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. For more information about Hillels Around Chicago, contact Michelle Maer at (312) 673-2352 For more information about The Hillels of Illinois, contact Rabbi Paul Z. Saiger at (312) 673-2356.
Lisette Dolgin is staff associate at The Hillels of Illinois.