“We embrace our challenges with tenacity, and we emerge even stronger.”
Those are the words Adam Lehman, interim president and CEO of Hillel International, shared at the sixth-annual Hillel International Global Assembly, which took place this week at the Omni Atlanta Hotel at CNN Center.
His message resonated with the conference’s theme — courageous voices.
The weeklong gathering opened with the third-annual Hillel Talks, featuring three, diverse campus professionals and one student leader who shared personal stories, insights and ideas to inspire their peers.
Albert Cohen, a graduate student at Long Island University, spoke about his journey as a Mexican-Jewish immigrant.
As an undergraduate student at Brooklyn College, Cohen juggled academics, a part-time job to help support his family and exploring his Jewish identity at Hillel. With the encouragement of Hillel staff, he eventually rose to become the Hillel president.
“My Hillel didn’t just invest in me because I was a student,” Cohen said. “My Hillel cared about me as a person, and they invested in me as a human being.”
The conference offered more than 50 thought-provoking sessions, attended by nearly 1,200 professionals, stakeholders and partners from Hillels around the world. Participants heard from diverse leaders such as Bari Weiss, an op-ed staff writer and ediotr for The New York Times and author of the new book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”
“What we need most is a radically new mindset,” Weiss said. “One that takes pride in Jewish life, and engages with it joyfully and creatively, not as an obligation to be met, but as a privilege to be enjoyed.”
Conference attendees also heard from Varun Soni, who serves as vice provost for campus wellness and crisis intervention as well as the dean of religious life for University of Southern California. He emphasized how valuable Hillel’s role is in improving the mental health of students.
“If disconnection is the crisis on campus, Hillel has the unique opportunity to be a part of the solution,” Soni said. “Hillel is in the connection business.”
Alongside Hillel’s Global Assembly, roughly 200 lay leaders convened for the third-annual Global Leadership Conference — an effort to gather movement-wide stakeholders and strengthen their knowledge of Hillel’s work.
They participated in an important and topical discussion about food insecurity on campus. Panelists highlighted a recent study by the UJA-Federation of New York, which reported that 42% of respondents said they sometimes or often rely on food at Hillel events because they cannot afford to buy meals.
Merav Fine Braun, executive director of Hunter College Hillel, said her staff of four spends considerable time reviewing their students’ academic schedules each semester to decide what times they should provide healthy, nutritious food.
“Nourishment influences a student’s ability to learn,” she said.
Global Leadership Society attendees also learned more about Generation Z, students born between 1997 and 2012, and their desire to be heard in their own voice.
The pinnacle of the conference was a ceremony honoring more than 20 of Hillel’s talented professionals and innovative campuses at the Georgia Aquarium, the first aquarium in the world to place a mezuzah on its door.
Rabbi Megan GoldMarche of Metro Chicago Hillel was one of eight campus professionals honored with the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award for their work with students. She was lauded for creating authentic and pluralistic Jewish experiences, especially for those on the periphery of Jewish life.
In addition, eight Hillels were recognized for numerous achievements, including creativity in fundraising, efforts to collaborate with campus organizations and innovative engagement methods.
Syracuse University Hillel and Greater Portland Hillel were awarded the Phillip H. and Susan Rudd Cohen Outstanding Campus Award. These campus Hillels successfully engaged 70% of the Jewish undergraduate students on campus at least once and engaged 30% of Jewish undergraduate students in either six or more experiences or one high-impact program.
The Global Assembly concluded with a civil rights tour of Atlanta. Hillel professionals walked the streets of Sweet Auburn, exploring the childhood home of Martin Luther King Jr., and visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights museum.
Marisa Fernandez, a program and engagement associate at Hillels of Westchester, was raised in Marietta, a city northwest of Atlanta, Georgia. Inspired by the educational tour, the 22-year-old hopes to organize Hillel programs for Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month.
“In the public school I attended, just 20-30 minutes away from here, I learned a sugar-coated history of the Civil Rights Movement,” Fernandez said. “This tour taught me details I didn’t learn in school.”
A first-timer at Global Assembly, Fernandez added, “Having candid conversations with colleagues across the movement was incredibly helpful. I now know more Hillel professionals who I can reach out to about Jewish topics my students or I find interesting.”