Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish college student organization, held its gala celebration with staff, students and supporters in New York City on Tuesday, May 15
to celebrate Jewish life on college and university campuses. During the celebration, Hillel International presented the Edgar M. Bronfman Award, established in 2014, to a staff member who has served the global Hillel movement with distinction and honor. This year’s award was presented to Esther Abramowitz, the associate vice president of Global Israel Experiences at Hillel International.
For the past 32 years, working at Hillel has been many things for Esther Abramowitz –fulfilling, fun, meaningful — but never boring.
“Every day, I feel like I have a real impact on people’s lives. I get to enable other people to be great, give them ways to fly, and give them the tools to fulfill what they want to fulfill,” she said. “It helps that my colleagues are the best in the world.”
As the director of Israel experiences, Esther facilitates Hillel’s Birthright Israel trips by welcoming cohorts, hosting shehecheyanu and leading participants in discussions and excursions. Esther, who works at the intersection of Hillel and Birthright Israel, says her role is to enable individuals to see that they are part of something larger than themselves. Through her work she connects Hillel students to their place in the history and culture of the Jewish people. Esther has met nearly every bus of Birthright Israel travelers since the Hillel program was launched. Esther herself can see how deeply connected she is to the Jewish people by the work she does every day.
“I work with a diverse group of people in and outside the United States including future Birthright Israel staff,” Esther said. “Just this week I did a training with new staff from the Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Russia. I looked at this group and told them ‘You are part of my family.’”
Esther can tell a thousand stories of the moment when people realize that they belong. A particular shehecheyanu with a group of Ukrainian students stands out.
“We went to a point that looked over Jerusalem, having an ‘Oh my g-d’ moment, eating and drinking and dancing,” she recalled. “On the edge of our group was an old woman in a wheelchair clapping her hands as we danced. I noticed her clapping and went up to her. It turned out that she was 100 years old and came to Israel after the Holocaust when she was just 16. She had this full life in Israel with her children and then grandchildren. We wheeled her into the middle of the circle and she became a part of our dance. She belonged with us and we belonged with her.”
Esther says that another incredible aspect of working at Hillel has been facilitating bar and bat mitzvahs for those who never had the chance to have one or who didn’t connect with their faith at the time.
“There was one young American woman who was studying at Harvard. When she was young, faced with the choice to study karate or go to Hebrew school, she chose the former,” Esther recounted. “At her bat mitzvah she stood before the group and said, ‘I’m a black belt in karate, but I don’t know how to read Hebrew. I never thought I could fit in here, but this trip makes it clear that I belong.’”
Esther’s experience of being part of something bigger started in her childhood. Her parents took her to a silent vigil outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. every Sunday at noon. This was the beginning of her advocacy for Jews in the Soviet Union. She joined a student movement, lobbied on Capitol Hill and worked with students at the University of Maryland and in Philadelphia. She traveled with students to protest and wasarrested for civil disobedience at the UN when then President Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev. The cause of Jews in the Soviet Union who had to form communities behind closed doors never left her.
In the 1990s, Esther went to the newly opened Russia and spoke with families about Zionism and Jewish history. She was a part of the movement to establish Hillels in Russia. Some of the most powerful stories from that time come from an effort she participated in called the Pesach Project.
“We would bring Americans studying in Israel to Ukraine and go out in groups to have Seders in households where Judaism had been buried for a long time,” she said. “We met a group of women who had married into Ukrainian families and couldn’t read the Hebrew-inscribed tombstones of their ancestors and this group of American and Ukrainian students was able to read it to them.
“There was even one Seder where an elderly man with signs of dementia sat at the end of the table. He had been nonverbal and near comatose for many years. When we started singing manish tana, he suddenly stood up and sang the refrain aloud, remembering the traditions deep with him and in everyone else around the table.”
Another part of Esther’s job is to serve as not only a translator between Hebrew and English, but also translating cultures, especially as she brings together Israeli students and soldiers with American college kids.
“I remember preparing a group of soldiers for a group of students from the University of Oregon, which is a pretty liberal university,” she said. “I had to tell them ‘They are going to have a different perspective on conflict and of your military service and it’s O.K. for them to ask questions.’”
Even as she manages staff there are certain cultural hurdles to overcome. As she mentors Israeli staff she has to sometime create space for new concepts. “There’s no word in Hebrew for ‘delegation,’” Esther laughed. “Everyone has been through the army where there is an order and way to perform tasks and that’s how things get done, so there’s a learning curve when adapting to a more global supervision structure.”
In more than three decades of service at Hillel, Esther has brought Israel to the students of the world and has brought them to experience their belonging to the Jewish people, especially to Jews living in former Soviet bloc countries where Jewish life survives despite years of trying to crush it.
“There are students that live all over the world that are desperate to feel a part of something larger than themselves and it is more difficult to fulfill that need for Jews in the former Soviet Union,” she said. “But it’s my job to ensure they are not forgotten. We are all part of this story and a part of this people.”