Over the past few months, I have had the honor and privilege to help organize the 2015 National Hillel Basketball Tournament. This year’s tournament enjoyed unprecedented success, as more than 550 college students partook in a communal Shabbat dinner, and over 1,000 people overall participated in the tournament weekend festivities.
As Co-Chairman of the board, one of my main responsibilities was to reach out to friends and staff members from Hillels across the country, in the hope of having them send a team to the 2015 tournament. Together with five dedicated board members, we contacted well over one hundred Hillels and engaged them in a conversation about Jewish life on their campuses and how sending a team to this tournament would add to their students’ Jewish college experiences. These conversations were especially inspiring for me because while I had a general idea of the differing approaches that Hillels take on their respective campuses, until partaking in this process, I never fully grasped the reach of Hillel’s influence on campus.
One school that stood out to me in particular was the University of Alabama. The University of Alabama is not known for having a historically large Jewish community. However, when I spoke with their Hillel director, I was amazed to learn that their Hillel actually puts on its own basketball tournament within the University of Alabama Jewish community every year! Although the University of Alabama Hillel was unfortunately unable to send a team to this year’s National Hillel Basketball Tournament, they took a great interest in engaging in a stimulating conversation about the intersections of college Jewish life and basketball, and are already preparing to send a team to next year’s National Hillel Basketball Tournament.
Another Hillel that made quite the impression on me was that of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Long before I even had a chance to make a call to a staff member at the UNC Hillel, I received an email from their Israel Fellow saying that he’s already putting together a team…and this was five months before the tournament. While the UNC team didn’t quite win the championship this year, they had a strong performance that would surely make the likes of alumni like Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, and Larry Brown proud.
Speaking with representatives from Hillels across the US showed me just how different Jewish communities across the college country can be. However, although their events, clientele, and magnitude may be completely different, their goal is one and the same. Across the country, Hillel meets students wherever they are on the religious and social spectrum in order to help enrich their Jewish college experience. And while students and staff members at different Hillels each approach that goal with their own unique spin, when it came to this year’s historic weekend in College Park, Maryland, the bridges that Hillels builds year-round within individual campuses were extended throughout the country. Jewish students from all around the nation were connected through the game of basketball.
The other amazing facet of Hillel that this weekend exemplified was student empowerment. The fact that 19 students were able to come together and build up this tournament from scratch is truly inspiring. At no point did any Hillel professional tell any of these students that they had to cold-call tens of schools, draw up press releases or arrange a Friday night dinner. Rather, these students put their hearts and souls into this weekend because they themselves were driven by their own vision of what bringing Jewish college students from across the country could accomplish. An event of this magnitude takes months to prepare, and the hard work that the student-led tournament board put upon themselves was an inspiration to watch, and serves as a telltale of what can happen when Hillel gives students the opportunity to take ownership of an event.
The 2015 National Hillel Basketball Tournament was truly special. As it brought Jewish students from across the country together around a game that is unifying, empowering and selfless, the weekend embodied empowerment and unity. It embodied commitment and enrichment. In other words, it embodied all the great work that Hillel strives to accomplish each and every day.
Jacob Neumark is a sophomore Government and Politics student at the University of Maryland. Jacob is from New York, NY and was the Co-Chairman of the Board for the 2015 National Hillel Basketball Tournament.