After a Year Like No Other, Hillel Celebrates its Graduates



June 8, 2021

Graduations, forever bittersweet, mean the end of an era. And while the 2020-2021 school year felt like an era unto itself, May and June eventually rolled around. As many college seniors started the next chapter of their lives, Hillels across the country continued the year of reinvention, holding re-imagined farewell events for their outgoing students to honor and celebrate their achievements. Hillel programs like the Serve the Moment Campus Corps and the Springboard Fellowship also wrapped up this spring, warranting more farewell events.

Hillel of Northern Nevada held a graduation ceremony and “senior send-off.” Friends of graduates were asked to speak about their peers’ accomplishments. Ahead of the event, Hillel Director Atty Garfinkel-Berry gave seniors gifts such as books, kiddush cups and compasses “to help students ‘find their way.’” To add some humor, Garfinkel-Berry also gave seniors rainbow scratch paper to doodle on between filling out job applications.

Rutgers Hillel held one of its only in-person events of the year—a Covid-safe version of the annual end-of-year Student Leadership Appreciation Banquet. At the event, which was held outdoors at a local park, seniors were given a blue and white graduation cord, and the outgoing student leadership was discharged as the incoming student leaders were installed.

“This annual event is a highlight of the year,” Rabbi Esther Reed, Rutgers Hillel Senior Associate Director for Jewish Campus Life, said.

“After over a year and a half of only seeing our Hillel friends’ virtual faces, we knew we wanted to end the year with something that could finally bring us back together in a way the pandemic halted for so long,” Jason Blatt, Rutgers Hillel’s 2020-21 President, said. “Spreading out over the pavilion in our local park, we finally got to be together, yet safe and socially distant, in a way we had wished to be able to do for so long.”

Indiana University graduates got to walk during their commencement, but families and friends were not permitted in the venue to watch. IU Hillel came up with a plan to host a commencement watch party and brunch. They also held a senior Shabbat dinner and cocktail hour for graduates and family the night before. Parents were invited to make a contribution and write a “mazel tov” message in honor of their child’s graduation. The messages were printed in the 2021 IU Hillel Graduation Booklet that was handed out at the events and mailed to virtual attendees. All graduating seniors also received mezuzahs.

University of Southern California Hillel’s senior committee organized a “Senior SCend Off” celebration. The senior committee, composed of seniors committed to creating meaningful Jewish experiences for their Hillel classmates, incorporated into the “SCend Off” USC’s tradition of taking senior portraits on campus. The celebration was outdoors and featured an acai bowl food truck, a student-curated music playlist, and the reading of letters that the seniors had written for themselves four years prior as first-years.

Hillel celebrated more than just senior graduations this spring. Hillel Serve the Moment Campus Corps Members “graduated” after a year of service. The Campus Corps, a collaboration between Hillel International and Repair the World, gives 100 students a paid opportunity to invest both in their communities and themselves through a Jewish service-learning experience. The Campus Corps members were celebrated at a closing ceremony on Zoom.

“All of you who have been a part of this, you are ambassadors of holiness for the Jewish community, for the Hillel community. It’s really nothing short of that,” Hillel International President and CEO Adam Lehman said at the Closing Ceremony. “You’ve done it with a sense of Jewish wisdom, with a sense of how, in the multiplicity of your identities, the Jewish element meets your passion for service and your passion for justice…The range [of service projects] has been really substantial in terms of how you have focused your service: after school, immigration justice, racial justice, food insecurity, working with seniors—the list goes on and on.”

“You joined this program, this service corps, at a really challenging time for America,” said Cindy Greenberg, CEO of Repair the World. “You could have been paralyzed and overwhelmed by the situation, but instead you stood up and took action to pursue a just world. You decided to use your time and energy to support your neighbors, and to put your Jewish values into action.”

The final Hillel farewell of this spring was for the fourth class (Dalet cohort) of Springboard Fellows. The Springboard Fellowship is a prestigious, paid, two-year fellowship that brings together the best, brightest and most diverse Jewish talent through a transformative early career experience in the Hillel movement. Fellows gain professional competencies needed to be outstanding leaders and changemakers in their communities while engaging in compelling work on college campuses across North America. Cohort Dalet graduated on June 2. Springboard Fellows got to celebrate their achievement of reaching over 63,000 students across the Hillel movement over the course of the last two years.

“For the majority of your fellowship,” Springboard Assistant Director Heather Paul said to the cohort at the farewell event, “you’ve been unable to travel on physical roads. But you have met amazing people. You have built powerful relationships. You have encountered the divine in unexpected places like your computer screens, and like the mystics, you’ve done it together.”

“I want to wish an enormous ‘mazel tov’ to the amazing Dalet Fellows,” Lehman said to the cohort at the event. “When I say amazing, I say that with candor and conviction…and to think that for your first professional experience, in most cases, you were faced with these incredibly…difficult circumstances, to navigate on your own as human beings and as professionals, but very importantly, to work through in ways that served students and campus communities.”