From “Hamilton” to Marvel: How Hillels are Using Pop Culture to Drive Connection



January 26, 2021

It’s not everyday a celebrity pops into your Zoom call. But as the Coronavirus pandemic has pushed Hillels across the world to get creative with their virtual programming, it’s not uncommon to see a pop culture icon sit down for a video chat with Hillel students. 

Hillels have been leaning on their connections and partnerships to bring a slew of pop culture discussions with Jewish actors and actresses, online influencers, creative directors, choreographers, and more to talk about their work and their connection to Jewish life. 

“The pandemic has done a lot of horrendous, terrible things, but one great thing it has done is opened up so many people who are willing to help,” The Ohio State University senior Sydney Klein said. “It’s been really cool to use Zoom to connect with Jewish people who would have never been able to physically come to our school.” 

In the fall, Klein was a moderator for an event with Stephanie Klemons, an associate choreographer and original cast member of “Hamilton,” who taught the group some choreography from the hit show. As someone who grew up performing in and attending theater shows, Klein said it was informative to hear the perspective of a professional who is a Jewish woman.

“My theater programs always had Jews around me, and it was great getting to hear how, at the highest level, Stephanie felt supported by other Jews,” Klein said. 

Though conversations with prominent figures in pop culture may not have been the most obvious programs a year ago, students and staff members say the discussions are an important part of adapting to bring engaging programming to Jewish students.

While students at The Ohio State University are used to theater performances coming to the city, Director of Jewish Student Life Jamie Schacter thought of the idea to invite Klemons for a program: “It’s thinking outside-the-box about what students are missing, and how we can adapt it to bring it to them in a safe way.”

The virtual format “has allowed us to connect to the broader Hillel movement,” Schacter said. “Students go online to these programs and they see that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. Each school engages and connects in a different way, but we all have the same mission of coming together.” 

Lexi Leitner, a Television-Radio and Theater Studies major from New York City, said it was natural for Ithaca College Hillel to host an event with Nuseir Yassin, because of the school’s signature communications program. Yassin is the founder and CEO of Nas Daily, a media company focusing on engaging social media content and creator of a wildly successful YouTube channel. 

A Palestinian-Israeli, Yassin spoke about his desire for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. When Yassin said during the webinar that he had no Jewish friends despite growing up in Israel, Leitner, who lived in Israel for 9 months, conversely said she had not met anyone who identified as Palestinian-Israeli.   

“The conversation was very personal,” Leitner said, adding that she thought the moment resonated with a lot of attendees. “He knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he knows people will disagree with him, but he still says it anyway.” 

Leitner believes the event fulfilled two purposes: bringing Yassin to an audience that’s extremely interested in his field of work, but also widening worldviews by hearing from a speaker with a unique perspective.

Comics legend Brian Michael Bendis, writer for DC, Marvel, Image and more, met his wife when they were both Hillel staff members. When he joined a Hillel @ Home event hosted by Cleveland Hillel and Greater Portland Hillel,  Temple University Sports Management sophomore Max Gordon moderated the conversation.

Knowing Bendis infuses his Jewish background into some of his comics, Gordon said he wanted to ask questions the award-winning writer wasn’t normally asked, such as: “You can invite three characters that you created for a Passover seder. Who is coming to your table?” (Find out what he said here!)

Gordon is also part of a group of Hillel students who formulated a partnership between Hillel International and an e-sports group called Lost-Tribe. Now, Jewish video gamers across the country can participate in tournaments and games together in real time. “It can be lonely for some people at home,” said Gordon. Video games can be “a way to connect students with other Jewish people around the world. It’s free to join, too.” 

Though the pandemic has upended any traditional sense of Hillel programming, Gordon believes that the organization has been able to thrive by bringing in different types of students who otherwise may not have been involved.

“Before it may have been prayers and other traditional programs, but now we’re able to offer so many programs that you maybe wouldn’t normally see on a Jewish platform,” Gordon said. 

Best of all? Gordon says the new programs are “still fulfilling Hillel’s mission of being inclusive and getting Jewish college students connected and involved.”