Tapping into the popularity of top-rated TV show "American Idol," Hillels in Indiana and Georgia brought the phenomenon to their campuses last week by sponsoring "Campus SuperStar" singing competitions. Thousands of students and community members packed venues in Indianapolis and Atlanta to watch Stephani Parker, a freshman at Indiana University, and Sarah Stephens, a sophomore at Spelman College, win the hearts of the judges and the admiration of the audiences.
Hillels of Georgia took advantage of the popularity of the event to announce a landmark development: The Marcus Foundation will provide a $3 million matching grant to construct a Hillel building at Emory University.
The 2005 Campus SuperStar competitions built on the success of last year's inaugural event sponsored by the Hillels of Georgia. Lay leaders from Indiana University Hillel first learned about the program at Hillel's International Lay Leadership Conference last spring, according to IU Hillel Assistant Director Andy Gitelson, and were impressed by how the event energized the entire metro Atlanta Jewish community. Since Indiana University is renowned for its music school, Gitelson believed the concept would resonate with his campus, and he worked together with students, his fellow Hillel professionals and dedicated lay leaders for 10 months to plan a competition open to all students in Indiana.
While IU Hillel lay leaders, such as event chair Dick Leventhal, secured support from sponsors, Program Associate Steve Kolmin utilized the talents of the students in the award-winning leadership course he teaches through the university to produce two rounds of auditions, two semi-final competitions and the final event. The program also proved to be a great engagement tool for other student volunteers.
"Some students who weren't active in Hillel saw this as an opportunity to get involved in a way that wasn't too Jewish and take on a leadership role," Gitelson said.
One hundred hopeful students turned out at each audition, one in Bloomington and the other in Indianapolis, and the top 25 competed in the semi-finals in Bloomington on March 23. Parker was crowned as Campus SuperStar out of a field of 10 finalists and won $5,000.
IU Hillel also shared in Parker's financial success, netting a $40,000 profit, but more important to Gitelson and Kolmin were the new relationships forged between Hillel and members of the Indiana Jewish community.
"We got the hook-up with the good partners in the community," Gitelson said. "IU Hillel alumni now have a better perspective of what Hillel can do today."
The spotlight moved south to Atlanta two days later, when Hillels of Georgia held its second Campus SuperStar event, where 10 finalists from five Georgia colleges and universities competed for a $5,000 prize. A panel of music-industry experts and local celebrities whittled the number of contestants down to five, and the audience further narrowed the field to three. Stephens, a vocal performance major, won with her rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."
Along with helping the contestants advance their musical careers and providing the audience with a wonderful evening of entertainment, Campus SuperStar was also notable for bringing together hundreds of volunteers and leaders in Georgia's business and non-profit sectors to raise more than $200,000, said Hillels of Georgia Executive Director Jacob Schreiber.
"Before Campus SuperStar, Hillel was never known as getting the 'A' list of people involved," Schreiber said. "This kind of event captures the imagination of community and campus leaders and shows that Hillel is part of modern America."
Attendee Randall Kaplan, the chair of the Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life Board of Directors, agreed: "The program is great in so many ways: It is a great way to engage the entire campus community, it presents a very cool image for Hillel to both the campus and general community, and it involves lots of student and lay leaders who are not normally involved in Hillel. It gives Hillel a large community audience to present all it is doing, it raises a lot of money for Hillel, and it is just plain fun."
Though the competition in Georgia was quite large with a $25,000 production budget, Schreiber stressed that the program can easily be adapted for smaller campuses. He pointed to the Hartford Hillel Foundation's successful "Greater Hartford Idol" contest in late 2004 as a perfect example.
"It's a great thing for a campus to do that doesn't have to be done on a grand scale," he said. "You have to see it to realize its power."
To learn more about Campus SuperStar, visit the Web sites for the Hillels of Georgia and Indiana University Hillel competitions, and read the Connecticut Jewish Ledger's coverage of Greater Hartford Idol.