University of Alabama Hillel is growing thanks in part to funding from the Birmingham Jewish Federation and staff support from the BJF; Hillel overall has changed dramatically.
By Joyce Spielberger, Birmingham Jewish Federation staff
Jewish community member Lori Dorsky and I were part of an eye-opening experience recently as we attended Hillel's "Renaissance Institute" for professionals and volunteer leaders held at Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, Georgia.
Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is the largest Jewish college organization in the world serving 513 campuses throughout the United States and Canada. Surprising to me was the fact that there are also Hillels in Israel, South America, the United Kingdom, Australia and the republics of the former Soviet Union.
The conference was held in conjunction with the Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly and over 350 college students were also in attendance. The students came from the United States, Israel, Argentina, Ukraine and Russia.
Through my work for the Birmingham Jewish Federation I have been working extensively with Hillels at Auburn and Alabama. Both receive funding from the Birmingham Jewish Federation Campaign.
Lori, who serves on the University of Alabama Hillel advisory committee and its Board of Directors, accompanied me to the program and together we experienced a Hillel we did not know even existed.
Enriching Students to Enrich the Jewish People
Hillel today is charged with the mission of “enriching the lives of undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the lives of the Jewish people and the world.” Referred to as “millennials,” today’s young Jewish adults represent a different challenge for Hillels than even 10 years ago.
Hillel recognizes that at present more young Jewish adults identify more ethnically as Jews than religiously and most are interested in social justice. That is why Hillel focuses on connecting Jewish students by first understanding their needs and interests.
We heard story after story from students who became involved at Hillel through a community service project, an outdoor adventure trip, sharing coffee with a Hillel representative, or by just seeking out other Jewish students because of a feeling of “disconnect” with the larger campus population.
As incoming Hillel President and CEO Wayne Firestone told the group, Hillel is not concerned with getting Jewish students in the door only to help with insuring Jewish survival, it wants to assist students on their Jewish journeys, helping them to “know their name.”
Discovering Judaism in Kiev
A student from Kiev, Ukraine, told us she found out from her father right before she went to college that she was Jewish after being brought up with no religion. After meeting the rabbi at the Hillel student center in Kiev, she learned about Judaism, the holidays, customs and practices, and three years later here she was in the United States for the first time attending this Hillel conference.
Lori and I were amazed by her story and so moved as she told us her family, too, was very proud of her Jewish commitment.
Hillel nationally helps Jewish students enrich their lives through a variety of programs.
When Hurricane Katrina a year ago, Hillel immediately went into action raising money, welcoming displaced students to their campuses, and sponsoring “alternative breaks” for Hillel students to do community service in the affected region.
Hillel recently partnered with the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation to sponsor bone marrow screenings on 50 college campuses. Hillel’s Birthright Israel program sends thousands of students who have never been to Israel on free campus-based trips, thanks in part to funding from local Jewish Federations.
These are just a few of the many programs Hillel has initiated to help college students have a meaningful Jewish experience.
Committed Core at UA
This year, as part of my Federation duties, I have been especially privileged to work with an extremely committed core of students at Hillel at the University of Alabama who have been working hard to connect the increasing numbers of Jewish students at Alabama to one other, and to Hillel.
Lori Dorsky, Brandon Cohen, Shanna Hocking, Star Bloom, Bobbie Siegal, Rabbi Steven L. Jacobs and I are all part of an advisory committee that meets regularly with the Hillel student executive committee in Tuscaloosa to help support their programming and recruitment efforts.
The leadership of the University of Alabama is also committed to encouraging Jewish students to attend Alabama. Thursday, Sept. 7th at 7 PM, Dr. Robert Witt, president of the University, will be speaking to interested high school juniors and seniors and their parents at the home of Lori and Stephen Dorsky. If you would like more information about this program, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-879-0416. Sophomores in high school are also welcome to attend.
Great things are happening through Hillel, locally, nationally and internationally, and is gratifying to know that the BJF, thanks to your support, is part of it.
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The Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Hillel President Wayne Firestone
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