My mother and my Israeli father instilled in me a deep and unwavering connection to Israel through visiting family there every summer while I was growing up, and my parents always put a great emphasis on Jewish values, particularly helping others and doing what we can to make the world a better place. The time I spent in Israel, my upbringing, and my Hillel experience in college, have made me someone who cares deeply about the future of Israel and the Jewish people.
In my position as Program and Engagement Associate at Hillels of Westchester, I reach out to students who are disconnected to their Jewish roots, students who have grown up in very active Jewish households, and students who might be exploring Judaism for the first time. I share my Israeli background in different ways; I practice speaking Hebrew with any students who are interested. Over coffee, students open up about what they want to gain from their Hillel and college experiences, and we talk about how I can help them achieve their goals. These informal interactions are crucial to building trust and rapport.
We invite professors to speak about their experiences and expertise. A SUNY Purchase professor spoke to students at a Lunch and Learn about fighting in the Yom Kippur War. The same professor spoke at Sarah Lawrence about the Women of the Kotel and the Arab Spring. His professor has a gift for teaching history in a way that captivates his audience and leaves them wanting to learn more. We hosted pilots from El Al Airlines, who will speak about life in Israel, as well as IDF soldiers who will share stories about protecting their country. We work with “Stand With Us” to bring in speakers to lead conversations about popular culture and politics in Israel while also addressing media biases. We encourage students to attend the J-Street Conference in the Fall and the AIPAC Policy Conference in the Spring.
Since I was young, I have been particularly passionate about social justice issues, and after leading Hillel’s Alternative Break Trips to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in college, I became even more committed to the Jewish responsibility of tikkun olam. Because of this, I am motivated to pass this lesson on to my students. Last summer, I participated in a Jewish social justice service trip to Thailand with “Justifi.” Justifi staff then spoke at Sarah Lawrence about social problems in Thailand, why tikkun olam is a Jewish responsibility, and explained how students can get involved. We coordinate with Rabbis who connect programs with discussions of Jewish values. We volunteered at a local clothing bank, “kids’ kloset,” sorting clothes for children in need, and a Rabbi joined us and led a conversation about tzedek and community service. A number of times every semester, we partner with “Midnight Run” to prepare and deliver food for the homeless in New York City. These initiatives connect the students with people outside of their campus communities and bring a greater understanding of Jewish responsibility in action. I encourage them to develop and lead programs on their own as well and I remind them that I am here to help them plan and follow through with their ideas.
Students often prefer a more informal Shabbat service, so I prepare a summary of the week’s parsha and as we read through it together, I encourage discussion about how the lessons relate to the students’ lives. Together with students, we organize screenings of a wide variety of Israeli films and lead discussions about how the films portray life in Israel and connect to Jewish culture and themes.
We collaborate with other campus organizations, such as the Spiritual Space and the Christian Union at Sarah Lawrence, and the Muslim Student Association and Alternative Clinic at Purchase - I think this is one of the most crucial ways to understand different perspectives and encourage people of different backgrounds and points of view to work together.
It is inspiring to work with students who want to share their values with others and impact the world. I help students realize their potential as leaders, empower them to think differently about widely held beliefs, or often travel to Israel for the first time; I believe the students will feel positively about their Jewish roots and learn about connecting to Israel. Some students will feel a connection to Israel and their Jewishness through a service trip with the JNF. For others, a thought-provoking Israeli film and subsequent conversation might encourage them to sign up for a Jewish studies class. Another student might become a Hebrew school teacher after learning about the opportunity at a bagel brunch. My job affords me the unique opportunity to work with students who often confide in me about school, various aspects of their lives, or look to me as a mentor and a friend. We can talk about things over coffee and hummus - and I want to be there for my students for both the lighthearted conversations and the difficult times.
Riana Goren is the Programming and Engagement Associate at Hillels of Westchester, working at Sarah Lawrence College and SUNY Purchase, where she has been since August 2013. Growing up, she spent summers with family in Israel. While attending Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, Riana attended Tel Aviv University for a semester, and volunteered at a gan for children with autism through the Masa Program Career Israel. After college, Riana worked in politics in Virginia and Washington, D.C. She now lives in Manhattan.