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Celebrating Beginnings through Shavuot and Commencements: A Note from Adam Lehman

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June 6, 2024

Dear Friends,

We will soon be celebrating the holiday of ShavuotShavuot represents both a conclusion and a beginning. With the receiving of the Torah, the Israelites concluded a critical phase in their journey toward Jewish peoplehood. Shavuot also concludes the counting of the Omer, 50 days after the start of Passover. At the same time, Shavuot marks a beginning. When the Israelites received the Torah, they agreed to abide by its commandments before even knowing what these mitzvot entailed. Thus began a new era of Jewish life and peoplehood, infused and guided by Torah, for the Israelites and countless generations of Jews to follow.

In this way, Shavuot is well matched by season to the college graduations that take place in the spring. Graduations of course represent a culmination for students of all of their learning, work, and growth during their college careers. And yet graduations are also known as “commencements,” since they are the launching point for graduates into the rest of their lives, hopefully guided by the wisdom and experience they’ve gained during their four (or more!) years of undergraduate study. 

While this year’s commencements continue to reflect the celebratory nature of years past, in many instances, they are also unfortunately being disrupted by protests, walkouts, and other interruptions. These actions have served to mar milestone moments for many of the other graduates and attendees, and especially for many Jewish students and their family members whose beliefs and identities are being directly attacked by some of the messages and tactics of the protesters. 

Even with the attempts of protesters and agitators to disrupt and degrade graduations, we at Hillel have stayed focused on doing everything we can to protect and enhance academic and student life opportunities and experiences for all of the Jewish students we’re privileged to serve. 

As I’ve shared in previous updates, we’ve been pursuing these efforts across a wide range of different areas —  security, government, legal, academic, advocacy at student and administration levels, and of course through our core work at Hillel creating welcoming, safe, joyful, and inclusive Jewish community spaces and experiences. 

In recent weeks, we’ve advised hundreds of university administrators on how to mitigate or prevent the adverse impacts from graduation disruptions; we’ve launched a petition that’s accumulated more than 33,000 signatures,calling on universities to enforce their existing rules and policies; and we’ve successfully advocated, together with partner organizations, to the Department of Education to issue clearer guidance to universities on the types of conduct that violate the rights of Jewish students under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At a campus level, many Hillels have culminated their extensive support for Jewish students by hosting special commencement events for graduating Jewish students and their families, providing joyful and meaningful opportunities for them to celebrate graduation.

As we look toward the next academic year, we know our work at Hillel will be more important than ever. And we are using these next few months to prepare accordingly: gathering key staff from across the Hillel field to share learnings and plans; coordinating with other relevant Jewish organizations to maximize the impact of our collective efforts; intensifying our advocacy and partnerships with university administrators so that they can be even more effective in maintaining a safe and welcoming campus climate for Jewish students and all students; organizing kick-off community pride and resilience programs and events to usher in the new academic year; co-designing with our student leaders proactive advocacy campaigns they can pursue on behalf of their campus communities in the fall; and investing in our professional talent across the Hillel movement, so they are both recharged and prepared with the necessary resources and expertise to support Jewish life on campus in the coming year.

Even with the unprecedented challenges faced by so many Jewish students this past year, a record-breaking number of students participated in Jewish life relationships and experiences at Hillel — more than 180,000 students in total. In my recent travels throughout North America and Poland and Germany, I had the chance to spend time with some of these incredible student leaders.

Between the focused efforts that our Hillel teams will be making to prepare for the next academic year — and the strength, resilience, and inspiring courage of our students — I am confident we can move past the many challenges of this past academic year to a brighter year ahead.

Adam