Eitan Hochster is an observant Jew from New York who volunteers in the St. Louis public school system and cofounded Students for a Peaceful Palestinian-Israeli Future. Moriah Cohen, who grew up with a Conservative background in St. Paul, Minn., organizes programming about Darfur, human trafficking and AIDS education. Their different backgrounds may have prevented them from crossing paths at Washington University before, but thanks to a new program at St. Louis Hillel, they are among 10 students who are coming together to form a new kind of Jewish community on campus, one united by an interest in social justice.
The students, all sophomores, juniors and seniors at Washington University, comprise the first class of the new Takkana Fellowship offered by St. Louis Hillel. An outgrowth of St. Louis Hillel's former Social Justice Institute, the program provides participants an opportunity to not only serve their university and surrounding environs, but also form a new, pluralistic model of a Jewish community on campus.
"The denominational ways to cut the pie" don't always work for students, according to Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow, the campus rabbi and assistant director of programming at St. Louis Hillel and one of the advisors to the Takkana program. "Social justice is a wonderful way to organize that's not the classic way to organize traditional Judaism."
Orlow and Jewish Student Life Coordinator Alana Sabin have been working with the students since the beginning of the fall semester to guide them through the yearlong program. Each participant is required to complete an internship and join the group for short retreats throughout the year where they discuss their work and the connections between social justice and Jewish teachings.
"We're showing these students that they can have this passion for social justice and tie it back to Judaism," Sabin said.
The students' internships tackle many pertinent issues both on campus and in the local community, according to Sabin. Some volunteer at after-school programs for underprivileged children or retirement communities, while others work to bring free-trade food to Washington University's dining services. Participants have also worked with Jewish and interfaith organizations, such as Faith Beyond Walls and the Green Zionist Alliance. Though their projects vary widely, the participants say their individual experiences allow them to help their fellow students with their own programs.
"We each come with a very different, different background, and our expertise lies in different places," said Avigail Goldgraber, a senior who has interned with the American Jewish Committee.
"It's cool because we all are resources for one another," Cohen added.
In addition, after working on individual projects during the fall, the group traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico during their winter break with the American Jewish World Service to work together helping a small community developing its eco-tourism industry. The trip allowed the participants to "connect on a much deeper level," according to Cohen, as they worked closely with local residents to build terraces and learn more about their livelihood.
"I was a little skeptical at first. I thought, 'What are we actually going to do?'" Hochster said. "But the locals got a lot just out of the fact that people would come all that way just to help them. It was mind-blowing."
Orlow and Sabin hope the students' enthusiasm to creating a Jewish community centered on social justice will continue after they finish their fellowship and move on from the university. They see the program as a "repeatable model of Judaism," in Orlow's words, that they can carry into their lives as young professionals, and the current class of fellows has every intention to do so.
"It has this very universal, humanistic idea to it," Cohen said. "This is kind of community that I feel really comfortable in."
"It's good to create a community beyond labels that focuses on something meaningful," agreed Hochster.