As Hillels around the world prepared to begin the 2020-2021 school year under unprecedented circumstances—fully remote, on-campus but without the ability to gather, and everything in between—Hillel student leaders and staff members alike worried in particular about how to engage and support first-year students. How could they ensure that first-years feel connected to a Jewish college community they’ve never experienced in-person? As the first semester unfolded, Hillels saw that some first-years were doing that critical work themselves. Many of these students are rising into leadership positions within their Hillel chapters and within broader campus Jewish communities on their respective campuses, despite the challenges this year has presented.
Daniel Kaplan is a first-year student at Penn Hillel who has taken on the role of Vice President for Tzedek and Social Justice. “At our Hillel, they are always striving to be better than it was before. Everyone wants it to be the best it can, whether it is taking on new projects or making new positions. They want us to be our best Jewish selves and our best selves in general.”
Kaila Rosovsky, first-year and board member of Manhattanville Hillel, part of Hillels of Westchester, also has become a leader on her campus by utilizing social media to reach out to potential new members and help promote their ongoing events and programs.
“Going to college was the first time in my life that I left my local Jewish community ‘bubble.’ I have always felt a very strong connection to Jewish communities around me,” Rosovsky said. “I didn’t want to leave that behind.”
Some first-year students became involved thanks to upperclassmen and Hillel professionals that encouraged them to run for leadership positions in their respective Hillel chapters. Others, however, were inspired at an early age to eventually lead on their campuses.
Abigail Bloom is a first-year student on the Hillel executive board at Simmons University in Boston. Growing up near Colby College in Maine, she was exposed to college Jewish life early on thanks to joint programming facilitated by her rabbi.
“I saw how Jewish life and college life are intertwined. The question was not whether or not I’d be getting involved in Jewish life at college, but more so what I’d be doing when I got there,” Bloom said. “[Currently in my role] I get to talk to the upperclassmen a lot. They’re the people I go to with the random questions I need an answer to, like, ‘What’s the best kosher deli in Boston? What’s a good bakery?’”
Lisa Green, first-year and Director of Religious and Cultural Education of Lafayette College Hillel, lauded the mentorship opportunities her college is offering, which center on Jewish life.
“We have a program called Big Bagel Little Lox in which every first-year was paired with an upperclassman,” Green said. “My Big Bagel has been so supportive and helpful, has introduced me to people, and answered so many questions of mine.”
Other students have had similarly positive experiences with mentorship on their campuses.
“When I joined Hillel, an upperclassman reached out immediately—it was really good for that one-on-one support. Anyone I’ve talked to has been super welcoming,” said Atara Lipetz, a member of the first-year council of McMaster Hillel in Hamilton, Ontario. “We’ve been able to move some things online, such as our Holocaust education week, continuing that important education in whatever way we could.”
Hallie Mayton serves on the first-year board of Hillel at the University of Pittsburgh, where they also have implemented a big-little program similar to Lafayette’s Big Bagel Little Lox. In high school, Mayton was very involved in BBYO and was eager to step into this leadership role when she arrived at college.
“For me, Judaism has always been a really great community,” Mayton said. “I made some incredible friends through my religion and being involved in Jewish life. I knew it was something that I wanted to continue by spreading that community feeling I’ve had throughout my life and offering it to other people.”
Mayton’s words ring true for Hannah Scott, a first-year and Vice President of Public Relations at Clark University Hillel. She attended all the weekly Shabbats and Havdallahs sponsored by Clark during the fall semster, and eventually rose into a leadership position.
“The challenge we faced [as our Hillel] this semester was making sure everyone is comfortable; some are fine with socially distanced in-person programming, and others are not. The successes have been working through those challenges,” Scott said. “We made a sukkah with plenty of airflow. We had Shabbat every single week. That was a standout moment for me: realizing everyone loved Shabbat as much as I do.”