By Amy Schwartz
When Rebecca Solomon arrived at the University of Central Florida in 2002, she had high expectations. As a native of Hollywood, Fla., Solomon had attended the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School, frequented USY activities at night and worshipped at temple on the weekends. She also enjoyed the luxury of six kosher restaurants within 10 minutes of her home.
"When I came to UCF, many of these luxuries were no longer possibilities. At least that's what I thought in the beginning," Solomon said.
Her first interactions with Central Florida Hillel were modest. She noticed an Israeli flag at a table outside the busy student union and approached the women behind it.
"They gave me a calendar, a T-shirt and some Lifesaver candies with little Central Florida Hillel stickers on them," Solomon recalled. "What they didn't know was that Central Florida Hillel would really become a lifesaver for me."
At the time, Central Florida Hillel, the foundation that now serves more than 5,000 Jewish students at UCF, Rollins College and the surrounding colleges, was just 2 years old. Three years later, Central Florida Hillel is regularly recognized on an international level for its innovative programming and mushrooming population. The Jewish students in central Florida, of which about half are from south Florida, now enjoy social, cultural and religious options that were not possible just three years ago, due to the generosity of Central Florida Hillel's supporters and the growth in staff and office space. But most importantly, Central Florida Hillel has grown due to the dedication of students like Solomon who desperately want their Hillel to properly serve one of the largest Jewish college populations in the country.
"Toward the end of my freshman year, it was clear that Central Florida Hillel was far below its potential. Something had to be done because students didn't know we were there, and we couldn't seem to reach them," Solomon said.
That's when she and several other students catapulted into action, planning successful programs on a consistent basis and building a student leadership structure to sustain the growth. The students' efforts coincided with a doubling in staff and the rental of a four-bedroom student apartment that was converted into Hillel's office and hangout space.
Since then, Solomon has served as both the treasurer and vice president for Hillel@UCF, the student group at UCF that Central Florida Hillel supports. She also led the efforts to bring the first Jewish sorority to UCF and is now the inaugural president of Alpha Epsilon Phi.
"I know that not only have I created a niche for myself, but for other Jews in Orlando, the thousands of South Floridians who migrate north to us every year, and even my two little sisters who would love to be Golden Knights one day." Solomon values the Jewish concept of l'dor v'dor("from generation to generation") and believes that it is Hillel's duty to not focus on the immediate reality, but to look ahead at the big picture - a picture that will likely include UCF as the largest university in the state in the next few years.
"Without Central Florida Hillel, I can honestly say I would not be as passionate and proud of my Judaism as I am now," Solomon said. "That whole part of my life that had been so integral to my upbringing and outlook on life would have gotten lost."
Amy Schwartz will be a senior this fall at the University of Central Florida.