Hillel International hosted its fifth-annual Global Assembly last month in Colorado. During the weeklong conference, participants attended the highly-anticipated Hillel Talks, a series featuring five campus professionals who shared their stories, insights and ideas to inspire their peers.
Magda Dorosz, executive director of Hillel Warsaw, stumbled upon a tattered document almost 20 years ago that belonged to her late grandfather, shedding light on her Jewish roots. Now, as a Hillel professional, she’s dedicated to helping 18- to 30-year-olds explore their newfound Jewish identities.
“Now that they know who they are and where they come from,” Dorosz said. “We’re no longer afraid. We’re no longer ashamed. We’re no longer hiding our identity.”
Rabbi Nikki Lyn DeBlosi, assistant director of New York University Hillel, stressed that inclusion is a matter of life and death. As Hillel professionals, it’s important to ensure that all students feel welcome, she said.
“Our challenge as Hillel professionals is there are students in our communities who we do not know yet,” Rabbi DeBlosi said. “How can we make them feel included?”
Landon Cohen, program director at Cincinnati Hillel, spoke about the importance of meeting the needs of queer students on campus. Inspired by his transgender journey, Cohen helped create Hillel International’s first Birthright Israel trip for queer students. He packed a bus with 24 students last summer, and will lead the second trip in summer 2019.
“In order to be inclusive, we first need to realize that Judaism is only one part of who our students are,” Cohen said. “Their other identities can and should be incorporated into our programming and how we present ourselves as an organization.”
Shira Gabay, Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at University of Maryland Hillel, recalled a transformative moment during her sister’s bat mitzvah in Israel. Gabay, a Jewish Israeli, told the audience that she began to ask questions about her identity after watching her sister carry a Torah around the sanctuary.
She now leads Birthright Israel trips and guides students through their own questioning, helping others explore their personal relationship with Israel. “I’m still asking, what does it mean to do Israel? Think about it. It means many different things to many different people,” Gabay said. “There isn’t one answer.”
Emma Kaplan, director of leadership development at Penn State University Hillel, offered her advice on confronting barriers in the workplace. Kaplan, who acknowledged her struggle with traditional Jewish learning, emphasized that one’s journey to overcome their challenges is what matters.
“We all have barriers,” Kaplan said. “It is human instinct to realize our barriers and run the opposite direction. But when we face these barriers, we are able to overcome them.”