The Hillel Foundation, that ubiquitous symbol of Jewish life on college campuses in America and across the globe, turns 90 this year. I know this because it came up in a recent exchange I had with the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation’s executive director, Michelle Blumenberg. I’m an alumnus, a Wildcat from back in the day. And the fact that I graduated from the UA the better part of a decade ago, have lived in New York for most of the time since, and yet I still consider Michelle a friend and mentor, is a beautiful illustration of the impact UA Hillel has on the lives of students. Despite my status as an “old-timer” compared to the current crop of undergrads, I’d be willing to bet that a lot of the things that made my experience with UA Hillel so wonderful still apply today.
For as long as I can remember, UA Hillel’s motto, their raison d’etre, is “getting Jews to do Jewish with other Jews.” The idea of “doing Jewish” was pretty broadly defined, and could include everything from traditional (and not-so-traditional) Shabbat services, to on-campus Israel activism, to leadership retreats. I fondly recall that my first experience in Israel was a Taglit — Birthright Israel trip organized by the UA Hillel Foundation. We learned together, we partied together and together we absorbed some of the history and holiness of our ancestral homeland, each of us in his or her own way. It wasn’t my last trip to Israel, but in many respects it remains my favorite.
While Hillel was central to many of my fondest college memories and those of my classmates, it also offered valuable training and leadership experience. I, for example, chaired the small but growing chapter of Kedma, the association for Orthodox students. When I moved to New York, I found my first “grown-up” job as managing editor of a local newspaper. Was the work of organizing a non-denominational Friday night dinner the same as running a newsroom? Not exactly. But learning to speak clearly and persuasively to a variety of audiences (both within our community, and when representing our community to others) and to establish consensus among diverse student groups — these kinds of skills are useful in any position of leadership. And each of these skills I was able to refine as a student leader and educator within the UA Hillel Foundation.
As a young adult chozer bitshuvah (returnee to traditional Jewish observance), I spent a lot of time at the local Chabad houses as well as Tucson’s Congregation Chofetz Chayim. In my experience,
college Hillel Foundations and more
traditional kiruv (Torah outreach) organizations have a tendency to not always get along so well. In this respect, UA
Hillel was relatively cordial with the “competition,” sometimes coordinating Shabbatons, or even offering the use of their own facilities for evening lectures. Each group has their use, and each one naturally attracts a certain type of Jewish student. Perhaps it speaks to a dichotomy within my own nature that I felt drawn to both. Having chosen a highly disciplined spiritual lifestyle, I can speak to the importance of Torah study and mitzvah observance. But as someone who grew up in a more open environment, and as the product of a secular school system, I also see the value in being able to let one’s hair down once in a while, and just be Jewish with other Jewish students. The UA Hillel Foundation has always provided plenty of opportunities for both. And while their pluralistic approach to, well, everything, inevitably leads to the occasional conflict, the end result is an environment where everyone feels respected, cared for, and safe.
While I may not agree with the various philosophies and sects represented at Hillel, I can’t help but be impressed by their tireless dedication to inclusiveness. Disagreement needn’t mean disrespect, and the staff, students, and alumni of the UA Hillel Foundation are living proof of this idea. Whether you’re Reform or Conservative, hiloni (secular) or haredi (ultra-Orthodox), UA Hillel has a place for you. The next time you’re on campus, be sure to stop by. I know I will.
Daniel Perez is a writer and media consultant based in Brooklyn, N.Y. His work has been featured in Ami Magazine, Yeshiva World News, the Jewish Press, Der Yid and other publications. He can be reached at [email protected]