FreshFest is where friends are made



June 19, 2018

Jacob Abtahi didn’t know anybody when he got to Tucson. So when the fall semester started, the University of Arizona freshman headed over to Hillel’s Welcome Week. 

“I expected a simple meet-and-greet but it was way more in-depth,” says Abtahi. “Hillel and all the people here are kind of like a family away from your home synagogue.”

Sarah Holtz, a sophomore at Penn State, found herself well on her way to being at home after her freshman Welcome Week in 2015. 

“I remember that we launched into an intense game of Jewish geography and found how many people we knew in common,” she says. “I met tons of new Jewish freshman and, over time, found my best friends.” 

Across the country such programs go by different names, but they’re invaluable in creating a Jewish community in a new college environment. 

At the University of Southern California, they call it FreshFest, a two-day program that includes an overnight retreat. 

“Coming into USC as a freshman, the image of walking through campus without seeing familiar faces pretty much terrified me,” says freshman Riva Cooper. “Going on FreshFest gave me the chance to meet other Jewish students at USC and begin to form a community.”

“FreshFest is by far our most engaging, successful and important program of the year,” says USC Hillel Executive Director Bailey London. “Not only do we think it helps freshman feel part of the community, but they all report back saying they met at least one of their best friends through college that first week. It also assures them and their parents no matter what they need — whether it’s for the holidays, meals or something spiritual — the Jewish community is there for them.” 

Each Hillel offers something different, though the goal is essentially the same: enable incoming students to feel like the Hillel on campus is their home away from home.

Cornell does it with a lawn barbecue with music from a disc jockey. The University of California at Berkeley Hillel takes students on a hike. Kent State (Ohio) scoops up students with an ice cream social. Temple University sent freshmen on a scavenger hunt in Center City, Philadelphia. And then there was NYU’s Bronfman Center, which hosted an LGBTQ drag queen show, featuring Lady SinAGaga.  

“FreshFest was such an awesome way to get acclimated to USC,” says freshman Blake Ackerman. “I came in apprehensive to the idea of going on a retreat with kids I didn’t even know, but now I call those same kids great friends.”

— Jon Marks