Anastasia “Anya” Esther looks forward to pairing her Friday night challah with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Hillel’s famous savory “green dip.” By tradition, she’ll acquire the recipe when she graduates from UWM.
Esther spends Shabbat schmoozing with friends and eating a free kosher meal, courtesy of Hillel. Afterward, the sophomore returns to her dorm with plenty of leftovers.
But just two years ago, she didn’t spend her Friday nights noshing on kosher food. Some days, she wasn’t sure if she’d eat at all.
Esther was homeless at 18 and living out of her hatchback in Wausau, Wis. At night, she’d park on country roads or in the parking lots of 24-hour stores before curling up in the backseat.
And her troubles didn’t end after she moved into her campus dorm. Esther relied on dinners and leftovers at Hillel Milwaukee at least once a week to fill the gap. She also depended on student loans, federal grants and more than two jobs to cover the rest of her expenses.
Like Esther, many students are dealing with the burden of ever-ballooning college costs — textbooks, meal plans, housing, laundry. They all add up.
In 2033, it will cost roughly $134,000 to cover four years of tuition, room and board at a public university, up from $81,000 in 2015, according to NerdWallet. The cost for a private college is predicted to soar to about $262,000 from $179,000 during the same amount of time.
Consequently, many students struggle to make ends meet. That’s where Hillel comes into play.
Hillels across the country help alleviate the financial woes of students with paid classes and internships, scholarships, free meals and work-study jobs.
Over 140 campuses offer the Jewish Learning Fellowship, a 10-week experiential seminar that encourages students to explore Judaism on their own terms. More than 3,000 students have participated, and each of them qualified for a stipend of up to $300.
At the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, more than 25 students in each cohort learn through the Jewish Learning Fellowship. Each week, they discuss topics like friendship and love through a Jewish lens, pushing each other to question their beliefs and grow. In addition to more than an hour of meaningful conversation, the students enjoy a kosher meal provided by Hillel.
But the Jewish Learning Fellowship is just the tip. Hillels offer numerous paid internships in areas such as student engagement, marketing and development.
At Queens College Hillel in New York City, the Peer Network Engagement Internship focuses on building relationships with uninvolved students and connecting them to strong Jewish experiences on campus. The interns meet every other week to work on community building projects and engage in Jewish learning. Upon completion of their internship, they receive a stipend.
And if students are in need of additional financial aid, they can turn to Hillel International’s Jewish Scholarships webpage, a one-stop shop for more than 500 scholarships for Jewish students. Applicants can filter their search results based on their residence and year in school.
Santa Cruz Hillel, for example, offers a $1,000 general-purpose scholarship in memory of the late Candy Issenman Coonerty, who was a member of the Santa Cruz Jewish community. The scholarship is awarded to a student who shares Coonerty’s commitment to the Santa Cruz County Jewish community.
Maryville University Hillel’s merit-based scholarships are renewable each year as long as the recipients meet enrollment requirements and remain in good academic standing. One Jewish woman who is an undergraduate student will receive up to $5,000, and one Jewish woman who is a graduate student will receive up to $10,000.
Hillels also offer support by providing free or heavily subsidized kosher meals to their students.
Surveys suggest that 20 to 33 percent of students at four-year universities experience food insecurity, according to the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. The term food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”
Alexa Zappia, a Hillel International Springboard Fellow at Hillel of Buffalo, realized that leftovers from Shabbat dinner on her campus ended up sitting in the refrigerator or being tossed in the trash. She thought, “Why be wasteful when we can feed hungry Hillel students twice in one week?”
Zappia created Free Lunch Mondays in September 2018. The program attracts roughly 30 to 40 students per week.
“We’ve noticed that the same students come every week, and that's very telling,” Zappia said.
At Hillel at the University of Toronto, there's Allen’s Table, a $5 dinner program offered Mondays through Thursdays for students. In addition to these dinners, the Hillel hosts a monthly themed Shabbat dinner.
Free Shabbat dinners and leftovers lighten Esther’s financial burden.
“There are weeks in college when I bank on leaving Shabbat with a bag of leftovers,” she said. “If you’re walking out the door and there is anything left in that kitchen, you know somebody is running after you with a Ziploc bag saying, ‘Hey, take some of this!’”
Hillel Milwaukee hired Esther in the fall of 2018 as a work-study administrative intern. The job helps her cover her hefty college expenses.
With work study covering many of Esther’s costs, she has the freedom to focus on her interests — co-founding a Jewish women’s group, running Hillel Milwaukee’s Challah for Hunger chapter, pursuing a career in the film industry.
Jonathan Mishory, 22, can relate.
He and his sister are both enrolled in college at the same time, and their parents can’t foot the bill for everything. Mishory’s work-study position at Washington University in St. Louis Hillel helps him make ends meet.
Mishory, a senior, manages the front desk at WashU Hillel for three hours per week. He said the job allows him to balance work and study. He can prepare for exams in between assisting students and parents who come through WashU Hillel’s doors.
“It has increased my personal connection with Hillel,” said Mishory, a political science and economics double major. “Even if it’s just answering the door and picking up the phone or letting people in or putting stuff in the refrigerator, I feel like I’m giving back to Hillel after all they’ve given me.”
Ariel Pazooky, 24, worked for three years as a work-study student at University of California, Los Angeles Hillel.
“I am truly grateful that I was able to find a work-study position that was in a building that provided kosher food so that I wouldn't have to worry about that aspect of cost throughout my college career,” Pazooky said. “To me, and many other Jewish students, Hillel is invaluable for that.”
Through her UWM Hillel work study, Esther, who spent years worrying about getting enough food, finally has easy access to food. Now, she can focus on her education, not just basic necessities.
She was also selected to join 11 other students for a Holocaust education fellowship and May trip to Germany and Poland through Hillel Milwaukee. For Esther, who spent eight years studying German but could not afford a trip to Germany, the trip is a dream come true. The $500 cost for 10 days in Germany and Poland is “a price point I can’t argue with,” she said.
“I am so excited to travel with my friends and to study something that is so important to Jewish history as well as our lives today,” Esther added.
And in two years, when she graduates, having traveled the world and finished her film major, Esther will finally get the recipe to Hillel Milwaukee's infamous green dip. She’ll be able to make it at her own Shabbat dinners someday.
Browse through more than 500 scholarship opportunities by visiting Jewish Scholarships on the Hillel International website.
Photos of “Anya” courtesy of Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.