More than 250 Hillel students, professionals and stakeholders gathered at George Mason University in Virginia on Nov. 3 to celebrate the campus Hillel’s 25th anniversary and reflect on its past, present and future.
Scott Brown, who received the Excellence in Jewish Leadership Award at the event and was the first president of Mason Hillel’s board of directors, said that 25 years ago, he saw the Hillel as a “growing” group and wanted prospective families to see the Hillel as a “vibrant” space.
“They’ve come a long way and the Jewish population is growing,” he said. “However, they haven’t come close to reaching their potential. The more they aspire to do, the more successful they are.”
Mason Hillel professionals and students were joined at the celebration by a host of community leaders, including George Mason University Interim President Anne Holton, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington President Mark Levitt, Mason Hillel Board President Allon Shiff and Hillel International Interim President and CEO Adam Lehman.
Noah Shufutinsky, a student at George Washington University who raps about his black and Jewish identities, was the featured performer. He shared two crowd-enthusing songs about his experience growing up as a Jew of color and the impact Hillel has had on his college experience and faith.
Na’ama Gold, the executive director of Mason Hillel, said in an interview before the event that over the past two years, participation at the Hillel has almost doubled. At least once this past year, 120 students have come to programming or events, she said. Between 70 to 80 students have come at least six times or more, she added.
Gold said the Hillel is working with the university to implement kosher dining on campus this year and plans on hiring a professional to work with students in Jewish education.
People used to view the University of Virginia as an unwelcome place for Jewish students, but Hillel changed that perception, according to Gold.
“In 10 years, that is how Mason’s going to be,” she said. “Instead of people thinking, ‘Well, there aren’t many Jews here’ or if they see BDS, they’ll think about Jewish life on campus. George Mason will be their top two or three options.”
Adam Lehman, Hillel International’s interim president and CEO, commended the “enormous strides” Mason Hillel has made in engaging Jewish students through traditional Jewish programming, such as Shabbat dinners, and in times of crisis, including anti-Semitic incidents on campus.
“We know at Hillel, the best way to fight hate, the best way to have the kind of inclusivity and diversity that President Holton talked about is to build a strong Jewish community, a community where Jewish students and other members of the community can feel proud of their Jewish identity,” Lehman said.
Pittsburgh Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, the night’s keynote speaker, said in an interview that he participated in the anniversary celebration because he has been inspired by student activists who are speaking out against gun violence. His synagogue, New Light Congregation, lost three members in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting last year.
“We must move forward and we must not be broken,” he said. “We must not be broken by this.”
He said Jewish communities such as Hillel must focus on inclusion.
“When you’re at a college campus, I know how it feels very isolating, alienating to be thrown in with a new group of people,” he said. “You have to work hard to find certain people to accept you, and I think that Hillel is one of those places that tries very, very hard to do that. I know that’s true of my own experience.”
— Elizabeth Mintz