It was supposed to be a typical meeting for Edgar's Book Club at New York University's Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. The students arrived ready to talk about their latest selection, "The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green," and they had invited the author, Joshua Braff, to join them. To their pleasant surprise, Jacob brought along his brother, Zach, star of TV's "Scrubs," who stayed for the reading and discussion.
Though the arts programs at most Hillels nationwide don't always involve famous actors, their popularity among Jewish students is indisputable. From film festivals and original theater productions to musical groups and magazines, students can choose from many ways to explore their artistic sides with a Jewish twist.
At the University of Kansas, the a cappella group Sharim Netzim ("singing hawks" in Hebrew) brings Jewish students together to perform Jewish songs. For the many members who spent years singing Christmas carols with their high-school choirs, they can now relate to the messages in the songs they perform.
"It's an opportunity to use their talents, and it's consistent with their identity and who they are as Jews," University of Kansas Hillel Executive Director Jay Lewis told the KU News. "They take a real sense of pride in it."
The silver screen has become an increasingly popular medium among Jewish students. Several Hillels, such as Hillel at San Diego State University, have sponsored film festivals featuring Israeli and Jewish-themed movies that many students would not see otherwise. Dartmouth University students who participated in their Hillel's Project Preservation, a program in which they traveled to Eastern Europe to repair abandoned Jewish cemeteries, used a documentary to share their experiences with their classmates and the local community. And Taglit-birthright israel alumni at the University of Wisconsin, Madison last year put together a film with highlights from their journey.
In fact, Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, Madison is the home of the Jewish Cultural Collective, an organization that emcompasses all Jewish arts and cultural programming on campus. Major support from the university's student government has allowed the collective to produce a Jewish student magazine, fund a Jewish theater troupe and bring a number of notable figures to campus, such as "Sex and the City" star Evan Handler, Jewish hip-hop artist Remedy and producers of the TV series "Lost."
Hillel professionals and student leaders are thrilled that these types of programs appeal to students from all backgrounds, including many non-Jews, and bring many new faces to Hillel. In Georgia and Indiana, the Hillels hold an annual "American Idol"-style singing competition called "Campus SuperStar," which not only attracts hundreds of students to auditions, but also involves the greater Jewish community as both partners in planning and audience members.
"Before Campus SuperStar, Hillel was never known as getting the 'A' list of people involved," said Jacob Schreiber, the executive director of Hillels of Georgia. "This kind of event captures the imagination of community and campus leaders and shows that Hillel is part of modern America."
And there are few limits when it comes to arts programming – including language. Hillels Around Chicago: Multi-Campus Center is using radio waves to build community among large population of Russian-speaking students in the area with a weekly segment on local radio show.
"Radio is a wonderful medium to reach Jewish students and young professionals and to let them know about Hillel programs and Hillel itself," said Michael Khvilovsky, a Hillel member who is a regular contribute to the show. "I would like to build a strong Russian Jewish community in Chicago, and this is my small contribution."