The start of summer means another cohort of talented college students have arrived at the Schusterman International Center in Washington D.C. to start their internships at Hillel International. Each intern has a unique story about their Jewish journey, their passion for the Hillel movement and their goals for the future.
Dani James, Pennsylvania State University ’19 (Development)
Dani James grew up in a religiously diverse neighborhood in Clifton, New Jersey, with a Jewish mom and a Catholic dad. As an adopted child, Dani was often confused about her Jewish identity. She grew up with many people questioning her Jewish roots, but she eventually developed her own, strong sense of Judaism. Although she participated mainly in multicultural organizations in high school, such as the Black Student Union, her family’s Jewish history meant a lot to her. Her grandmother left her traditions behind after escaping Nazi Germany. For this reason, Dani believes her Jewish traditions are important.
When Dani decided to attend Penn State University to study journalism and political science, she felt a yearning to learn more about Jewish traditions. Dani met her first Jewish friend on her dorm floor, who invited her to Shabbat dinner that night. Although she has never gone to a Shabbat dinner before, she saw the experience as an opportunity, and has been going to Shabbat dinners at Hillel ever since.
After attending Shabbat at Hillel several times, she decided to try other events, including holiday celebrations and Israel fairs. Each time, she met new students. After finding a close group of friends at Hillel, she realized she was proud of her Jewish identity, even without much of a formal background. “Hillel doesn’t tell you how to be Jewish. They emphasize the importance of peace and understanding, which helped me feel like I was actually welcome.”
Growing up around different religions has inspired her to work in the nonprofit sector after she graduates in December. Having worked for several nonprofits, including one in Tel-Aviv, she realized her passion for development and fundraising. Specifically, she wants to help nonprofits that focus on bringing people together from different religious communities.
At Penn State, Dani started her own digital weekly publication, Panorama, focused on international news. She freelanced for various journals and magazines and is a teaching assistant for an environmental science class.
Hillel continues to be an area of exploration and community for Dani. Her belief in community building is why she wanted to work for Hillel International. “Hillel, and Judaism overall, is about being empathetic and connecting students around the common goal of helping others. I now see how important religion is in finding that commonality.”
Zeke Parsons was accustomed to moving around the country as a child. By the time he was 13-years-old, Zeke had already lived in three cities before settling in Greenville, South Carolina. He wasn’t very active in Jewish youth groups, but he recognized the importance of his Jewish identity through his family’s traditions and teachings. When he decided to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to major in religious studies with a minor in history, he once again felt the need to find a new community. Unlike many students who move often, Zeke did not find it difficult to make new friends, especially in the Jewish community.
“When we all have the common connection of being Jewish, of having the same values and experiences growing up, it becomes very easy to become closer with new students, even if we’ve just met.” Zeke’s identity as a Jewish student continued to grow as he attended more Hillel events on campus, making new friends every time. Zeke was appointed as both the Israel chair and religious chair on campus due to his passion for the State of Israel and Judaism.
He was hired as an engagement intern the following year, where he connected with students who, like he was at one point, were in search of a community. He sees himself in a lot of the students he meets, and is happy to see that many of the students he brought into the Hillel community have become highly involved.
A passionate student of history, he attended Aish HaTorah Yeshiva for a part of the summer, where he learned about Jewish history, morals and teachings. His experiences inspired him to attend the Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem over the winter in order to continue his learning.
Zeke spends his time playing trumpet in the marching band, traveling to other countries to study their cultures and exploring Jewish communities abroad. His love of travel is what inspired him to apply for the Hillel conference internship, because he would get to travel to different states and personally experience the different Jewish communities around the country.
Although he’s unsure of what he wants to do after graduation, Zeke is confident he’ll find a community wherever he ends up. He plans to take everything he’s learned from his time in Hillel with him. “Hillel gave me a way to not only explore my Jewish identity, but explore my Jewish community as well. There are people I never would have met had I not gotten involved with Hillel.”
Chloe Laverson’s main identity has always been Judaism. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in San Diego, Chloe had the freedom to explore Jewish customs and traditions in her own way. She chose to join the United Synagogue Youth group in middle school. “The freedom to decide how Jewish I wanted to be let me find my true identity. I knew it wasn’t just a thing my parents wanted me to do, but something I actually loved.”
Chloe enrolled in the University of Utah to major in musical theater, but quickly discovered her passion for communications and social media marketing through her experiences as Hillel for Utah’s vice president of communications, and switched majors her sophomore year. Her involvement at the Hillel for Utah only deepened her love for Judaism. Her favorite part of working for Hillel on a campus with fewer than 1% Jews, she said, is seeing Jewish students who grew up feeling like they did not fit in the Jewish community continue to come back to Hillel every week. Chloe’s friend Ella, who has a Filipino Catholic mother and a Jewish father, never did anything Jewish until college. Thanks to Chloe’s engagement with her, Ella has become more involved in Hillel and feels part of the Jewish community in Utah. “That’s what brings me the most happiness about Hillel. It brings Judaism to the heart of the person, and that’s special.”
Aside from Hillel, where she spends most of her time, she works as a Hebrew School teacher at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City. She’s also the communications vice president of her sorority, Pi Beta Phi.
After graduation, Chloe is confident she’ll continue working in the Jewish world. “Hillel has really changed my life and shown me what I want my future to look like. It touches the hearts of so many.”
Although Yogev Ben-Yitschak grew up in Israel, Judaism was not a major part of his early life. His small community of 200 families in Avtalion, surrounded by the fields of the Galilee, often had celebrations for the High Holidays, but not much beyond that. Yet, Yogev never saw himself as less of a Jew than anyone else around him. “To me, being Jewish is about being part of the community, doing right and having faith, rather than following every specific rule. I believe if you treat everyone with kindness, you can never be less of a Jew than someone else.”
When his family decided to move to the United States, he felt both excited and nervous. The original plan had always been to live in Milwaukee for only three years, for his mother to work at a Jewish day school for a limited time to get experience in teaching abroad. With a major language and culture barrier standing in the way of making friends, Yogev felt isolated. Often, the only other students who would talk to him were his Jewish classmates. Some even tried to speak to him in Hebrew. In school, Yogev improved his English and worked on assimilating into American culture.
After graduation, he decided to study marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, not far from his home in Milwaukee. Being the first one in his family to attend college in the United States intimidated him, and he often felt lost within such a big university. He went to Hillel for Shabbat dinner within a few weeks of arriving on campus and immediately found friends with similar interests. He started going to holiday celebrations, which he never attended before, and went to prayer services more often. Yogev felt closer to his Jewish identity than ever before.
Outside of Hillel, Yogev became involved in Israel advocacy and student government. . His first experience as a freshman was seeing BDS pass his student government unanimously, which motivated him to run for student body vice president the following year. Once elected, he used his platform to oppose further resolutions and advocate for renaming a university meeting room named after a former KKK member. He is also involved with the campus interfaith group.
After college, Yogev hopes to continue advocating for Israel and work at Jewish nonprofits, such as Hillel. “Hillel was the first community for me in Madison. As someone who had a hard time connecting with people when I first moved, their inclusiveness and openness made me feel truly welcome.”
Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio as the son of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother meant that Joel was raised celebrating holidays of both faiths. But while lighting the candles for Chanukah and getting presents under the Christmas tree on the same day was always a highlight of the year, he never had the experiences of ‘typical’ Jewish students growing up. He never went to Jewish summer camps, or synagogue. Hillel at Rochester was his first Jewish experience outside of home.
When Joel graduated high school, he received the George Eastman Young Leaders Award from the University of Rochester, where he currently studies environmental health and philosophy with the ambition of helping as many people as possible with their health and well-being. He realized his calling of helping those in need can come in many different forms, which led him to apply for the Hillel engagement internship on his campus.
“Having grown up in an interfaith family, where I felt the difficulties of fitting in a Jewish community and saw how hard it can be to explore my own Jewish identity, I felt that I can personally connect to Jewish students who are on similar paths in their lives.” He specifically chose to be an engagement intern to build relationships with students who were not confident in their own Jewish identity, and find ways to connect them to Hillel and the Jewish community as a whole. His favorite part is seeing his own feelings about Judaism develop alongside the students he meets, as he personally feels closer to the Jewish community every time he meets with a new student.
On campus, aside from being an engagement intern for Hillel, Joel is a member of his AEPi chapter and hosts his own radio program, “The Chronicles,” with his roommates. His favorite episodes include “70’s Rock and Food Talk” and “ABBA and American Presidents.” He also participates in Hillel Shabbat dinners and events during the week, part of his efforts to explore his passion and identity as a Jewish student.
Hillel International is also part of his Jewish journey, where he feels the lessons he’s learning as a measurement intern are directly related to the work he wants to do in the future. He said he believes that no matter how you help someone, measuring your progress and goals is extremely important. “Helping people is the overall goal, and I could see myself working in Jewish non-profits in the future, or centered around health and social justice.”
Izzy Wellman, Rowan University ’20 (Technology Services)
Izzy Wellman grew up in Holmdel, New Jersey, where Judaism played an integral part of her early life. She has been involved in her local Jewish community since she was 2 years old, attending a Jewish preschool, going to Hebrew school for 12 years and spending two summers at Jewish sleepaway camps. She was involved with her local temple youth group for three years, serving as the programming vice president and communications vice president. She was also involved with her local NFTY region, the Garden Empire Region, and served as the regional communications vice president as a senior in high school. For Izzy, Judaism has consistently been a part of her life. “Judaism has always been at the forefront of my identity. A lot of people try to find their Jewish identity in college, but I’ve always had mine.”
Izzy decided to attend Rowan University to major in communication studies because she immediately loved the campus, and specifically sought out a Hillel she could be a part of. Within a few weeks of starting her college career, she was appointed as the religious and social media chair for her campus Hillel. Several years later, she now serves as president of the organization, overseeing almost all aspects of marketing, programming and religion.
Her experiences, especially as the religious chair, have opened her eyes to new passions, including social justice and giving back to the community. Her focus as president shifted around diversity, friendship and charity. She became more invested in the Jewish community at Rowan, and sees interning at Hillel International as an opportunity to continue pursuit of working in the Jewish nonprofit world. As the president of a small, student-led organization, Izzy knew she had to step up with her vision for her campus Hillel. “South Jersey never had much of a Jewish population, and I hope to use what I learn at Hillel International to grow Rowan’s Hillel and help lead it to its full potential.”
Although her time is limited between leading Hillel and being a student, Izzy is also part of the Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority and a 7th grade teacher at a temple nearby in Sewell. She originally was interested in being an online content creator, but after being involved with Hillel at Rowan University, her interests changed and she now sees herself continuing to work in the Hillel movement after graduating. “Hillel understands that Judaism is always changing, and I want to be a part of that change.”