Emily Stecher is a 2009 graduate of Northwestern University. Below are her remarks to the May 25, 2011 Hillel: Foundation for Jewish Campus Life Renaissance Award event honoring Morris W. Offit.
Emily Stecher greets Morris W. Offit.
My experience with Hillel has truly changed my life, and I am so excited that I have the opportunity to share my story with you.
Just six weeks agoI was standing in Radom, Poland, with my family --including my 87 year old great aunt -- looking at the remnants of the lost community where she and my grandfather lived before the Holocaust. We saw the vestiges of the ghetto where they were imprisoned. And we visited Auschwitz where so many of their friends and family perished. This was likely the last time that my great aunt would visit those places and I am glad that I went. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Standing here tonight, I will tell you that I would not have gone to Poland except for the powerful influence that Hillel had on my Jewish identity.
It’s true that being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors has given me an increased sensitivity to being Jewish. But I came to campus with the same ambivalence and apathy as any other person my age.
When my parents dropped me off at Northwestern University for my freshman year in 2005, they helped me to unpack, they gave me a big hug, and like tens of thousands of other Jewish parents around the world, they urged me to go to Hillel on Friday night.
So I did exactly what tens of thousands of Jewish kids around the world, do: I laughed.
But when Friday night rolled around, it turned out that I wasn’t the only person whose parents made that suggestion. I ended up at Hillel for services and dinner with a group of people that I stayed friends with throughout college. We all recognized that we had this unspoken connection that would always tie us together. But none of us stepped foot in the Hillel building again that year.
Fast forward almost two years to the end of my sophomore year when my friends urged me to apply for a program called the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, or CEI. On campuses across North America, CEI recruits students with broad social networks to serve as peer-engagement workers to build relationships with hundreds of uninvolved Jewish students around campus. Since I was one of those uninvolved students myself, CEI was perfect for me.
Through the program, I connected with dozens of my friends and formed new relationships as well. Together, we explored our Jewish identity in new ways that were appropriate for our age and our campus lifestyle. It was the first time that we took ownership of our Jewish identity since we left home. For example, I spent the afternoon of Yom Kippur setting up a break fast identical to the one I attended at home… only it was in a dorm room. And on Sunday nights I often hosted dinners where we ordered-in Chinese food – because that was my family’s Jewish ritual on Sunday nights.
My year-long efforts culminated in a final project that proved to be my best engagement effort.
For years, my parents had urged me to go on a Birthright trip, but Northwestern’s calendar did not line up properly with Birthright’s so I and hundreds of students like me were unable to participate. Putting on my CEI hat, I saw this as a challenge and not an impossibility.
I got special permission to organize a one-of-a-kind Birthright trip for students who shared our trimester calendar. Working with my fellow Northwestern Campus Entrepreneurs, we recruited students to fill a bus, and the next September 35 Northwestern students spent 12 fabulous days in Israel. I’m very proud to say that we started a tradition with that trip: Last year seven buses, over 300 students, from a dozen different schools travelled to Israel.
I remained active with Hillel during my senior year and served as a CEI advisor, helping younger students to do engagement work. I became close with my Hillel professional advisor and with dozens of Jewish students I met through the program.
Although I graduated almost two years ago, Hillel continues to influence my life today.
As an analyst at Goldman Sachs, I barely have the time to breathe. I am sure that many people here can relate to that.
But when I do have free time, I spend it in Jewish-oriented activities.
One of these programs is 3GNY, a New York-based group for the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Through 3GNY I learned to tell the story of how my grandfather and his family survived the ghetto, the death camps, and ultimately the Second World War. I recently went to Brooklyn Generations High School and told my family’s story to a group of 30 tenth graders. It was an unbelievable experience and I can't wait to teach again.
Hillel truly enriched my life and I hope that I have given a little something back. Through retelling my family’s story – our Jewish story – to high school students. Through the creation of new Birthright Israel trips. Through sitting on the Board of Northwestern Hillel, which I will begin to do next fall. And through speaking on behalf of Hillel and the wonderful impact it has had on me, and continues to have every day.
So, on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Jewish students around the world, thank you for everything you do for Hillel.