Up close and personal
Elyssa Hurwitz continuously works to meet students where they are on their Jewish journeys.
Sometimes that means brainstorming ways to seamlessly add a Jewish component to an otherwise secular event. Other times it involves chatting with a student over a hot cup of coffee to learn what they need to enrich their Jewish experience on campus.
“People come from different places, and they’re going different places,” she said. “We have to keep that in mind.”
The 24-year-old recently celebrated her one-year anniversary as a Springboard Fellow and engagement associate at Greater Portland Hillel, which serves Jewish students at Portland State University as well as Lewis and Clark College.
Hurwitz, who was raised as a Reform Jew, got her start as a Jewish leader at Hillel during her freshman year at Michigan State University. She wanted to maintain a connection to her Jewish identity after leaving the comfort of her native California to attend university more than 2,000 miles away.
“I didn’t know anyone,” Hurwitz said. “Having a Jewish community was something I could hold on to when I went off to college.”
She grew from a passive student, sitting quietly in and listening intently from the back rows during Shabbat services at MSU Hillel, to a confident leader who regularly took to the bimah to lead services and engage her peers in conversations about the weekly parashah.
During her senior year, Hurwitz stepped into the role of Judaic chair, where she helped student leaders add a Jewish lens to their program ideas. When some members of the Hillel student board suggested a floral crown making event, Hurwitz recommended they host the event in celebration of Tu B’Shevat, which translates to the new year of the trees.
And now as a Hillel professional, Hurwitz is focused on strengthening Jewish education for students by expanding “Dinner and Learn,” a bi-monthly event featuring kosher food and Jewish learning. She also hopes to create a new program called “Jews and Brews,” an opportunity for students of legal age to grab a drink, socialize with friends and learn a tidbit of Jewish text.
“This is low-barrier content — something that gets Jewish students through the door without making them feel that they’re ‘not Jewish enough,’” Hurwitz said. “Building Jewish community is so important, and that’s what I’m here to do.”