Keeping a Jewish Flame Alive on Campus

I had the privilege last month of attending the Hillel International: Global Assembly, which brought 850 Hillel professionals to Orlando, Florida, for three days of networking, training and Jewish learning.

It was truly inspiring to spend time with these professionals—many just a few years out of college themselves—whose sole focus is creating Jewish campus communities for those who will comprise our next generation of Jewish communities at large. These professionals are engaged, committed and passionate about striving to make
Hillels welcoming and all-inclusive.

I met with young professionals responsible for Hillel campus programming, and they spoke of the myriad events they hold to draw Jewish students with varying interests. As they strive to help students form a sense of belonging and personal connections to Jewish life, they create spaces for these students to come together, from Shabbat dinners and dialogues to Jewish culinary and cultural events.

I spoke with young rabbis who want to build Hillel communities across all streams of Judaism, ensuring that the “just Jewish” secular student is as comfortable as the student who grew up in a shomer Shabbos home and went to Jewish summer camp. One Conservative Hillel rabbi told me about the work that she does with the campus Chabad rabbi, as they hold joint study sessions and encourage students to connect with those from different backgrounds. An Orthodox rabbi, meanwhile, told me about his conversations with students from Reform backgrounds.

As sessions and discussions took place, the hallways were abuzz with excitement about a $38 million grant from the Marcus Foundation. The funding is for Hillel Talent Grants aimed at attracting, developing and training new professionals, as well as retaining professionals in the field. The Marcus grant comes just a year after a $16 million investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation to launch Hillel’s Drive to Excellence—enabling the organization to build data systems and other needed support to create excellence on every campus—and a $750,000 Ruderman Family Foundation grant for inclusion initiatives for students with disabilities.

The Global Assembly also saw the launch of Hillel U, a continuing education program to provide experiential learning opportunities for Hillel professionals and foster career growth. Since Hillel International is the largest entry employer in the Jewish world, and their staffers go on to work at Federations, synagogues and other Jewish communal organizations, an investment in talent isn’t an investment solely for Hillel. It also is an investment for the entire community.

These grants and initiatives validate the importance of Hillels to our Jewish community’s future.

Just think about it: Hillels operate in 19 time zones, 12 languages and on four continents. In North America, Hillel is active on 550 campuses, available to 400,000 Jewish students at a time when they are exploring and searching for meaning in their lives, open to new experiences. Another 56 Hillels serve Jewish students elsewhere in the world, from Argentina to Israel to Uzbekistan.

Jewish Federations are proud to be the largest collective funder of Hillels. Approximately 25 percent of Hillel’s funding coming from local Federations, and our Federation communities both invest and engage with their local Hillels on an ongoing basis. Additionally, we are excited about our growing mentorship initiative for students who show great potential to be future Jewish communal leaders.

With college often a time when students seek to change the world, Hillels give them an opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives. Its Alternative Break experiences have taken more than 15,000 students to 40 countries, where they have done such activities as tutor inner-city children and help fix up homes damaged by hurricanes. I’m proud that one of my daughters will be joining fellow students from the University of Maryland Hillel for Alternative Spring Break in San Diego, where they will volunteer with social service organizations to examine immigration and border issues. Another of my daughters served on the Hillel International Board of Directors, which enhanced her education and gave her a larger network and exposure to serious board-level discussions.

As we begin this new year, I am proud that our Federations and communities support Hillel’s extraordinary work, ensuring that a Jewish flame continues to burn brightly on our campuses.

Jerry Silverman is president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America