‘Our Jewish values always surround us — even more so during times of struggle.’



August 20, 2020

My summer was out of the ordinary. With the spread of coronavirus, I had to stay away from friends and extended family, back out of working at a Jewish summer camp and scrap any plans of heading back to campus this fall. My Hillel peers were also facing similar disruptions in their lives. This unusual summer led to the creation of the first-ever Hillel International Presidents Cohort, a four-week opportunity for 50 Hillel student presidents across the globe to virtually brainstorm and prepare Hillel events this year.

As president of West Chester University Hillel, I attended four virtual Zoom sessions led by various Hillel professionals to learn, engage, and network with my peers. They focused on topics such as self-assessment, leadership skills, diversity, inclusion and what it means to be a Hillel leader. With each session, I learned our Jewish values always surround us — even more so during times of struggle. That meant I could still infuse socially distanced, Hillel programs with Jewish values, including kavod (respect), v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) and especially that of kehillah (community).

Our conversations began with a workshop on developing our personal strengths and using them to strengthen our team. To benefit our own Hillel teams, we reflected on our results of the CliftonStrengths assessment, a series of questions that help people understand their personal talents. I learned my strengths as a Hillel leader fit into many categorical themes, including discipline, achiever and strategic. We were able to dive into leading a team and how using tools, such as DARCI (decider, accountable, responsible, consulted, informed), can keep our Hillel boards on track to organize meaningful programs and events.

The sessions also challenged us. We focused on the “every,” meaning how we can be as inclusive and welcoming as possible to each student. Hillel’s mission is geared toward the “every,” hoping to engage Jewish students from all backgrounds, races, genders, socioeconomic classes, abilities and sects of Judaism. To do this as student leaders, we need to eliminate our implicit biases and create an open community for all students. We learned that whether we go about doing this through posting Hillel events in non-Jewish spaces, collaborating with other identity groups on campus or engaging every student who walks up to our table, it’s so important to challenge the perception of who is Jewish.

All through these sessions, we were joined by members of the Hillel International Student Cabinet, which uplifts the voices of students within Hillel International’s leadership. They shared their interests and offered ways in which they could best support us as presidents in our own Hillel communities, such as Israel advocacy, communicating with student government and involving minority groups. I was able to strengthen my own leadership skills while bouncing ideas off my peers with similar Hillels and interests. I’m implementing these new ideas at my own Hillel as I create virtual programming for Shabbat, holidays and socials this upcoming semester. This initiative not only created a larger sense of support for Hillel student leaders, but further developed the importance of shared community and connections. To continue growing during a time of uncertainty, it’s important to come together, and the Hillel International Presidents Cohort allowed us to do that.

Amid these unprecedented times, especially in today’s largely virtual world, this has been one incredible example of what community looks like. While I lost my original summer plans, I didn’t lose my community. Rather, I became part of a new community, characterized by resilience and dedication. We’ve found ways to come together like never before — over Zoom, of course — but with a larger sense of gratitude for what we have. I’m so thankful to be part of the WCU Hillel and Hillel International communities.

Sophie Koval is a member of the Class of 2022 at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.