Nikita Choudhary was born in Jamshedpur, India, and grew up cruising around her childhood home of Allen, Texas, rocking out to Bollywood hits in her parents’ car.
When it came time to choose a college, Choudhary enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, not just for its Ivy League education, but for the promise of a multicultural college experience.
She quickly made friends with some of the Jewish students in her freshman year residence hall, partaking in late-night conversations in the hallway about other students’ upbringings. Those discussions eventually migrated to Shabbat dinners at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel.
Shortly thereafter, Shabbat at Hillel became her personal tradition, allowing her to meet new friends each week. By her sophomore year, the Hillel building became the hub for her social, academic and cultural life.
Now as a rising senior, Choudhary, who is proud of her Hindu identity, can likely be found studying, noshing or socializing at Hillel. She even served as the organization’s first-ever interfaith events chair last year. In that role, she organized cross-cultural and interfaith programming, including two unity Shabbat dinners for leaders of different cultural and religious communities across Penn to come together for a meal and conversation.
“I’ve found that many people, especially those who are particularly tied to their own cultural or religious heritage, will only congregate with people with similar backgrounds in social settings,” Chourdhary said. “I think that I was able to serve as a link to other campus life that other Jewish students had not been previously exposed to.”
Sheila Katz, vice president of student engagement and leadership at Hillel International, said Hillel professionals are on more campuses than most other faith leaders, which has led many students, regardless of their background, to seek out the rabbi or Jewish educator on campus for guidance, wisdom and support. She said students are often exploring their own religion, but also what different faiths and identities mean to them.
“The reality is that Hillel operates in the ecosystem of the university and it is important that we celebrate our allies and partners on campus who want to help Jewish life thrive, especially in the space of interfaith engagement.
“When Hillels do that, a more diverse audience is going to be interested in learning and engaging with Jewish culture and education,” Katz said.
Another important Hillel goal is teaching the broader community of students about the central role Israel plays in Jewish history, religion and peoplehood.
“At a time when Israel is in the news daily and often becomes an issue on campus, it’s critical to offer students outside the Jewish sphere varied opportunities to engage with Israel and Israelis,” said Mark Rotenberg, Hillel International’s vice president for Israel engagement. “Not only will the Jewish community benefit from this engagement in our struggles against BDS and anti-Semitism, but we’ll be teaching an appreciation of Israel for those who almost certainly wouldn’t have that opportunity without our outreach.”
The David Project, which merged with Hillel International in 2017, is intentional about reaching out to other faith and ethnic communities on campus and building bridges. Its mission of building diverse, pro-Israel support depends on it, according to executive director Phillip Brodsky.
“In order to build meaningful relationships, we need to step outside our comfort zones and be present for the issues that other communities face,” Brodsky said.
Students from across the United States traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the The David Project’s first-ever Black Jewish Summit in November 2017.
Ryan Kun, then-senior at the University of Cincinnati, was one of the Jewish students who attended. Even though there are people who identify as members of both communities, he said much of the weekend focused on learning about the issues the black and Jewish communities are facing separately.
“I think it’s important to bridge communities, especially as minority groups on a college campus, to really have a strong foundation, because then you can really support each other,” Kun said.
Local Hillels also offer educational opportunities for the communities in which they exist.
One such example is Hillel Russia. Two years ago, the Hillel created a free summer Hebrew course in which Moscow residents study the language every Sunday for 10 weeks in a park pavilion. Participants learn topics such as Israeli gestures, Hebrew phonetics and grammar, and differences between biblical and conversational usage.
Margarita Skipina, public relations director at Hillel Russia, said the course started to spread the word about Jewish peoplehood and tradition. There have been close to 1,000 applications for the class each year.
“People of all ages come, and the reasons why they all come are different,” Skipina said. “There are Jewish people who want to learn Hebrew, Jewish people who want to move to Israel, and there are people of all faiths who are just fond of Jewish culture.
“We don’t ask about the reason they want to learn it, but people thank us and tell us this is a great opportunity,” Skipina said.
Beyond opportunities for study, Hillels offer students of all cultures the chance to roll up their sleeves and perform tikkun olam, acts that help repair the world.
Challah for Hunger is a popular initiative at many local Hillels that raises money and awareness for hunger relief. Many of the group’s volunteers and leaders come from diverse faith backgrounds.
Christina Fusca is one of them. A former Catholic school student, Fusca, served as the communications chair for Hillel at Temple University’s Challah for Hunger chapter, and now will be the baking chair for her junior year. She also serves as the social outreach chair on the Hillel’s tzedek board which focuses on community service, volunteer work and social justice issues.
“My moral and social values lined up with what Hillel and Challah for Hunger had to offer,” Fusca said. “A sense of community and lending a helping a hand.”
Hillel reaches out to engage students of all backgrounds on campus through its Alternative Break programs. These service trips are yet another way both Jewish students and students of all cultural backgrounds can practice Jewish values with the Hillel community.
Since 2004, more than 16,000 students have embarked on these service trips with Hillel across the United States, South America, Israel, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Africa.
Adrienne Sarbaugh, a rising senior at Bowling Green State University traveled to Orlando, Fla. on an Alternative Spring Break to volunteer with Give Kids the World Village, a resort for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.
Sarbaugh recalled a video they watched together one night in their house’s movie room called “5 Points of Being Jewish.” When the video ended, the group of 12 students, which included several students of diverse backgrounds, found ways to relate to the content.
“You didn’t have to tie it to Judaism, but just discuss how you connected to it,” Sarbaugh said. “The basis was from a Jewish side, but you didn’t have to take it that way…and it was welcoming.”
Back on campus, Sarbaugh will serve next year as the social chair for Hillel at Bowling Green. In that role, she will plan social events such as tie-dying or rock climbing at which everyone is welcome.
Although she isn’t Jewish, she feels part of “the little family they’ve created.”
“It’s just ‘I’m Adrienne.’ I’m not ‘Adrienne the Catholic,’” Sarbaugh said. “Hillel puts the person first instead of the religion or culture that they are.”