Hillel in Israel took an important step in solidifying its future recently with a historic meeting in Jerusalem. Hillel International Board of Governors Chairman Edgar M. Bronfman joined senior Hillel professionals, Hillel Israel Steering Committee members and the presidents and administrators of five major Israeli universities -- Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology -- to discuss the organization's expansion throughout Israel and possibilities for growth within both new and existing centers.
Hillel in Israel has been around almost as long as the state, with Hillel at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem open since 1951. But the past 55 years have brought a rebirth to the organization, which added centers at Tel Aviv University in 1998, Ben-Gurion University in 2003 and IDC Herzliya just last month. Now serving thousands of students – Israeli and overseas, secular and religious, immigrant and native-born – Hillel must chart new directions to facilitate meaningful Jewish experiences that speak to all of them.
"Hillel in Israel [in its current form] is a young organization and has every possibility open to it. It is not like a huge boat moving in one direction that will continue its path through inertia. Here the opportunity exists, and there is nothing to stop us from going in any direction," said Adam Bronfman, a vice-chair of the Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life Board of Directors and member of the International Board of Governors.
Much of the discussion centered on Hillel's role in helping Israeli students explore their Jewish identities, find a sense of belonging and ownership in the Jewish community and connect with Jews all over the world. Since many Israelis have a very polarized view of Jewish observance – you are either religious or secular – the challenge lies in facilitating engaging programs that appeal to a wide range of students.
"There is a great need for pluralistic programs that reach out to secular students, which provides secular students with opportunities to discover Judaism for themselves," said Jonathan Davis, the vice president for external relations at IDC Herzliya.
"The time is ripe because the young generation is really searching for a sense of connection and identity," agreed Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Many spoke about how the students' increasing leadership role is essential in planning programs and encouraging new people to become involved in Hillel.
"There is a limit to how many students can be reached by the directors and staff. The more student 'agents of change' we have on campus, the more impact we can have in challenging and engaging students," said Doron Rubin, the director of the Ellin Mitchell Hillel Program at Tel Aviv University.
And while Hillel aims to provide a multitude of opportunities to Israeli students during their university years, those in attendance hope its impact will extend far longer in the students' lives.
"We have to try to also think about how the seeds of Jewishness that are planted through Hillel can continue and help the student in his life. The celebration of Jewish life for three years at the university is not enough," said Inbar Bluzer, a former Hillel student leader at Ben-Gurion University who is now developing a Hillel in Haifa.
"Hillel can do something about making people feel Jewish and experience Judaism as a joyous way of living," Edgar Bronfman said. "[But] the work is beyond us. The wick gets lit and we inspire students."