Hillel International kicked off The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly this past weekend in Washington with a welcome lunch for the more than 100 Hillel students who attended the three-day confab.
“The message is finally getting out that we have to listen to your generation,” said Gerrald (Jerry) Silverman, president and CEO of JFNA. “Ask tough questions,” of yourselves and of Jewish communal leaders, he urged the students. “You are the Jewish future.”
That message was well-received. But, said one University of Maryland student active in her campus Hillel, “my Jewish present matters, too.”
At a private breakfast meeting before Tuesday’s sessions between 40 Hillel GA scholars and Hillel International President & CEO Eric D. Fingerhut, student after student took the opportunity to speak up about the state of their Jewish lives and campuses right now — from the challenge of building and strengthening Jewish life on small campuses; to feeling connected to the global Jewish community; to forging friendships and good working relationships with other student leaders, faith groups and university officials.
A UC Santa Barbara student shared her experience of building bridges to Christian and Buddhist organizations on her campus. As an outgrowth of that effort, she said, the campus passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, with the student body president leading the charge. “Make the connections first,” she advised the other students, before crises erupt. “That way, you can deal with BDS when it comes up. That’s where real empathy comes from—actual relationships, real friends.”
In short, said Fingerhut in his remarks to the group, build community — for your own sake and for the well-being of other Jews. “Don’t separate yourself from the people,” he said, paraphrasing Hillel the Elder, for whom the Hillel movement is named. “We need you! It’s why Hillel has a responsibility to reach out, and why you as leaders have a responsibility to reach out” to Jewish students.
And not just on campus. Hillel is expanding internationally, he told the group, including, most recently, to Siberia, a place Fingerhut said he hopes to visit this winter (for the full experience). “Can we make it one of our birthrights to connect Jewish students to the rest of the [Jewish] world?” In that spirit, Fingerhut shared the news that Hillel is creating a new Student Cabinet to ensure that students’ voices are integrated into everything Hillel does.
Another way Hillel students connected at the GA was in one-on-one sit downs with mentors from JFNA.
One of those was Queens College student Shanie Reichman, a first-time GA attendee. Shanie, who has worked with her campus Hillel on issues of inclusion for LGBTQ students and students from intermarried families, said Hillel has empowered her to bring about change in her own corner of the world.
“It's been so great meeting the support system that lets us do what we're so passionate about, meeting the people behind the scenes, helping us inspire other students,” echoed University of Maryland student Rachel Greenberg, who introduced Rabbi Mike Uram, executive director of Penn Hillel at a GA plenary, addressing a crowd of thousands.
Hillel GA scholar Yael Kogan, a junior at the University of Toronto, said the highlight of the conference for her was the chance to meet her personal role model, Rosalie Abella, the first Jewish woman appointed to Canada’s Supreme Court and the child of Holocaust survivors who was born in a DP camp in Germany.
"I was so honored to meet Rosalie Abella. I saw she was on the list of featured speakers, and knew I wanted to come to the GA. I was so excited to hear her speak and be inspired by her story. I came to learn how to build strong Jewish community, be a Jewish leader on my campus, and I wanted to come here to be inspired.
“I want to follow in her footsteps. She's such an inspiration for me. Today I'm inspired to go back to my own campus and build Jewish community while also building my own career."
Hillel students had many chances throughout the conference to hear and even rub elbows with some of brightest stars in the Jewish community, from former Israel Deputy Prime Minister and current Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky, who met them for a private dessert reception (and even took selfies with them!), to “Will & Grace” actress Debra Messing, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Students noted how much more attention they received from communal leaders at this GA versus years past, although more work remains to include their voices and viewpoints in the conversation, said Fingerhut. Still, he applauded for their persistence and passion. “You got on airplanes” to be here, he said. “You could have done other things. You sought peace in the community in the best tradition of” our sages.
Challenges loom large in the Jewish world today, said JFNA Board Chair Michael Siegal in the event’s closing plenary. Young leaders play a critical role in helping to meet those challenges. “Have any of you called these young leaders for coffee, invited them to your home for Shabbat dinner?” he asked the assembly.
“We should personally engage” with young Jews, he said, “and seek out their passion and leadership.”
Listen to audio interviews with Hillel students at the GA here: here and here. Read about the GA on Twitter at #JFNAGA
Check out our photo album from the GA on Facebook.