Hundreds of student interns and professionals from around the world come together at Washington University in St. Louis every August for Hillel Institute. Essentially four conferences in one, Institute spans a full week on campus, training Israel fellows, engagement interns, new professionals and Ezra fellows. Each cohort has its own role on campus, from Jewish and Israel education to student engagement.
The new cadre of Jewish Agency for Israel fellows, 36 new and 35 returning, were first to arrive in St. Louis for a week of education and special presentations. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, spoke at the conference’s opening plenary and Yavilah McCoy, black Jewish educator and racial justice activist, led a closing discussion on Intersectionality.
Engagement Institute started with an opening plenary to remember, as Hillel International President and CEO Eric D. Fingerhut shared his story about the single vote which passed the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 while he was a congressman. Using the metaphor of the vote, he stressed the point that every member of the community matters, that no change in politics or Jewish communal life happens as a result of one person alone.
Spoken-word artist Andrew Lustig also joined the opening plenary to share his original piece, “I am Jewish,” which sparked students to share unique facets of their own Jewish identities.
The following day, students and professionals engaged in breakout sessions tailored to their roles on campus. New professionals discussed everything from Birthright Israel recruitment to social media while engagement interns mapped their networks and practiced engaging IRL (in real life).
Thursday night’s session, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof: Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue," featured a panel of diverse Jewish perspectives on justice in our communities. The all-female panel consisted of Deborah E. Lipstadt, history professor at Emory University; Yavilah McCoy, racial justice activist; and Rachel Sumekh (UCLA ’14), founder of Swipe Out Hunger, an organization dedicated to ending food insecurity among college students.
Afterward, Institute participants watched a sneak peek of the upcoming feature film, “Denial,” about the famous trial during which Lipstadt defending herself from a libel suit brought by a well-known Holocaust denier. (Spoiler alert: Lipstadt won.)
As Institute began to wind down for Shabbat on Friday, students were given the option to attend a field trip to the St. Louis Zoo or St. Louis Art Museum.
Another group of students opted to participate in a service project, painting a community space used for a summer camp in Ferguson, MO, instead.
Friday night at Institute is always a beautiful sight, as many of Institute’s hundreds of attendees wear white to ring in the Sabbath. After half-an-hour of Kabbalat Shabbat dancing, they broke into numerous Friday night service and alternative options, from traditional and egalitarian services to meditation sessions and discussions.
After Shabbat ended with a lively Havdallah service, everyone packed into buses for a trip to St. Louis’s famed City Museum, a former shoe factory turned adult playground.
After most cohorts left St. Louis on Sunday morning, the Ezra fellows stuck around for two more days of Jewish learning, spiritual exploration and, of course, singing.
See more photos in our Facebook album.