Hillel President Wayne Firestone told Hillel professionals gathered at the organization's annual training conference, the Hillel Institute, that "today Hillel is the living, tangible Facebook of the Jewish people." (More below.)
Recalling a recent meeting with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, Firestone described how the Jewish campus group helps students build their personal social circles and connects these circles into a greater web of international relationships. By providing these students with opportunities to create their own Jewish activities, Hillel is helping them to take ownership of their Jewish identities. Firestone added that today's economists and sociologists would call these students "prosumers," that is, consumers intimately involved in the creation of their own products or services.
Firestone outlined the organization's challenges and objectives for the coming year. He explained that this fall the Center for Israel Engagement will launch the "Talk Israel" program which will sponsor teach-in tents on 20 campuses across North America, linked interactively, to help students and staff alike process the cacophony of media messages surrounding the Middle East. In these tents, students will be encouraged to grapple with issues surrounding Israel in a free and open forum. Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders and as a member of the family of free nations. This initiative is funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.
Simultaneously, Hillel will commence the Ask Big Questions initiative, a nationwide program that will encourage students of all backgrounds to collectively confront the existential issues that are so much a part of the college years and, by doing so, to promote civility and understanding. Ask Big Questions will bring diverse groups of students together for conversations that matter. When it was pioneered at Northwestern University Hillel, students convened salons in coffee shops, common rooms and apartments to explore such questions as "Where do you feel at home?" "What"s the best advice you ever received?" "What do you wish you could say to your parents?" and "What should we sacrifice to change the world?" Ask Big Questions is funded by the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust.
The Hillel Institute brings together in one location separate leadership training programs for Hillel students and professionals. More than 1,000 participants from around the world traveled to St. Louis where the program was held on the campus of Washington University of St. Louis for the second year.