A bleary-eyed Tova Frank boards a bus, walks to Grand Central Terminal and catches a subway train bound for Manhattan before most college students get out of bed.
The 20-year-old has tried different modes of transportation — car, boat, train, bus — to avoid grinding traffic during her three years commuting to Hunter College. At most, it has shaved a few minutes off her two-hour trek from Monsey, N.Y.
“I’m there to get a degree,” said Frank, a junior majoring in theatre. “That’s my main focus.”
Because of how much time she spends on the road, Frank didn’t give much thought to becoming involved on campus. But last semester, driven by the desire to become more active in the Jewish community at Hunter College, she “made a conscious effort” to attend Hunter Hillel programs during the gaps between her classes.
Radical scheduling changes at Hunter Hillel, a feat undertaken by its newly appointed executive director Merav Fine Braun, have allowed Frank as well as more than 400 other students to engage with Hunter Hillel in the 2017-2018 school year thus far.
“We’re here to meet the needs of our students — not ours,” Fine Braun said. “If we don’t alter our programming to meet their needs, then we’re failing.”
Fine Braun, who previously served as an engagement associate at Maryland Hillel, realized that hosting social events at night, organizing Shabbat dinners on campus and scheduling educational classes that only meet once a week — the standard approach to building Jewish life on campus — wouldn’t be effective at Hunter College.
Its students have some of the farthest commutes in the CUNY system, with many traveling as long as Frank — if not farther. They aren’t going to travel to campus unless they need to be there, Fine Braun said.
To become more familiar with their schedules, she and her assistant director, Arielle Braude, camped out in the student lounge during the first week of the fall semester. After meeting with more than 200 students, some of whom have 12-hour days on campus, the pair worked meticulously to organize events around their students’ class schedules.
Frank said the transformation has not only allowed her to increase her participation in Hunter Hillel but encouraged her to launch its LGBTQ organization Tzvoni in early February.
Other program changes include Shabbat Across Hunter, providing students with the materials they need to recreate the Hillel experience in their own homes with friends who live nearby. In addition, the 10-week Jewish Learning Fellowship, a seminar that usually meets at night once a week, is offered three times a week at Hunter Hillel.
Sapir Sandowski, a freshman who commutes roughly 1.5 hours to Hunter College, said she has “begun to create lasting relationships with other Jewish students, and that’s because Hunter Hillel is giving me the chance to do that.”
Queens College Hillel has made similar accommodations for its more than 4,000 Jewish students on campus, 98 percent of whom are commuter students, according to the U.S. News & World Report.
“It’s worth it to stick around on campus after class — to be active, to be part of something bigger than yourself — but that’s not an option for everyone,” said Michael Tokov, president of the Bukharian Club at Queens College Hillel.
Recognizing that the opportune time to engage students is over lunch, Queens College Hillel has organized various learning programs with free food beginning around noon, including the leadership initiative C.L.U.E., the Jewish Learning Fellowship and the Choikhona program.
At Florida International University, 92 percent of students commute to campus, including Stacey Alpert.
For roughly an hour, Alpert, 23, battles traffic on the highway to attend classes five days a week at the Miami-based university.
The biology major, who lives at home with her mother and five other family members, said commuting from Pembroke Pines, Fla., can be tiresome but it’s financially practical, in part because she’s planning to attend veterinary school.
But despite the drive, Alpert, now a senior, became heavily involved in Jewish life at FIU.
She remained on campus after her final class of the day to attend programs at Hillel at FIU. When Alpert enrolled in courses, she took her weekly Hillel activities into consideration. Last year, she was elected secretary of the Hillel student board.
“I put my best foot forward when I truly care about something,” she said. “And Hillel is an organization I deeply care about.”
Alpert recalled one evening she spent at Hillel at FIU working on a project that would determine her final grade in a class. As a student leader, she had permission to stay in the building after hours and planned to exit through a door that would lock automatically behind her.
It was almost 5 a.m. when she finished the project, and she had to be back on campus around 8 a.m.
“I wasn’t planning on it, but I slept at Hillel that night,” Alpert said. “Hillel cares about their students and it shows. That’s what makes it feel like home, even when you live far away.”