‘We want to be for everyone:’ Hillel embraces Jews of all backgrounds
Religious and cultural programming continues during COVID-19
Before coming to college, Sari Arrow had never been away from her family for the Jewish High Holidays.
She was unsure what to expect when she arrived at UB.
But Arrow, a sophomore psychology major, decided to get out of her comfort zone and attend Rosh Hashanah services at Hillel of Buffalo, a multi-faceted organization which provides a platform for Jewish students at UB to connect with their religious and cultural roots.
Arrow said she found Hillel at a time when she was looking for community. That sense of community exists today, even as she takes classes from home because of COVID-19.
“Hillel has helped me make UB my home away from home,” Arrow said. “As a freshman, UB seemed like such a big place with a million things to do and so many people to meet. When I started going to Hillel more often, I found myself becoming close friends with people who go there and the staff. They helped me navigate through my freshman year and created a sense of community for me and my friends.”
Even during a pandemic, Hillel staff members have been hard at work planning virtual — and sometimes in-person — events. The organization is experimenting with “Herd Community,” a program that divides students into small groups and allows them to participate in virtual events and win prizes.
Between Herd Community, weekly bagel brunches and “Mitzvote” — a program that helps students register to vote and request absentee ballots for the U.S. presidential election — Hillel is still active, said Rabbi Sara Rich, executive director of Hillel of Buffalo.
“We anticipate students’ feelings of isolation being greater, that it is harder to make friends for new students, that there might be economic hardships for some students, that there is added stress from taking classes online,” Rich said. “We are there for students as much as ever. It might look different, but we’re still there.”
Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, with representation at more than 550 colleges. UB has roughly 2,800 Jewish students, according to the annual Hillel College Guide, making it the 40th largest university in the nation by Jewish population.
UB’s expansive Jewish population is both a challenge and an opportunity for Hillel, Rich said.
“We need to make sure that we’re reaching out to students where they are,” said Rich, who has overseen an expansion in programming and has worked to change the way students are engaged. “We need to make sure that we support the things students care about, instead of saying here’s a menu of what we offer, and telling them to pick something.”
Four years ago, Hillel began an organizational reboot after it became clear that it was “not serving the students the way it should have been for many years,” said Rich, who was hired in 2017.
So Hillel brought in Rich and expanded its staff from one full-time employee to three. It moved locations, from a nondescript office on the second floor of the Commons to a large, multifaceted suite on the first floor. And it conducted a listening tour of Jewish and non-Jewish students.
Hillel is still evolving, but the changes Rich implemented have already made a big impact.
“It’s night and day,” Rich said. “The goals are the same: enhancing the lives of the Jewish students on campus and giving back to the university. But how we’re doing it now is much more relevant to the students.”
Last year, Hillel introduced Design Hub, a multifaceted platform for students to create their own initiatives. Students will come to a staff member at Hillel with an idea for a program. They will then receive the coaching, financial resources and general behind-the-scenes support needed to carry out their project.
“It’s a platform for students who are driven by something — they have an idea in their head, like cooking or Zumba,” Director of Engagement Logan Woodard said. “We work with these students to create something in that area. We will mentor them in this process. It’s a lot of question-asking that helps people pinpoint the idea that they want to work on. We support them.”
Over the past year, students have successfully implemented a wide array of projects, from cooking classes to community service events. The diversity in programming is intended to mirror the diversity in the student body: participants come from all types of religious backgrounds.
“There is intentionality behind the diverse programming,” Woodard said. “One person might be super excited about this, but someone else about something else. We find working with the students and helping them create the experiences that they want to be important.”
Hillel offers students a smörgåsbord of opportunities.
In a pre-pandemic year, Hillel hosts a free bagel brunch at the start of every week. It is an opportunity for students to meet each other and build community, said Woodard, who added that “food is another way in which students relate to their Jewish identity.”
The food is a big draw on Friday night, when Hillel hosts egalitarian services for Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath. While Hillel does not have the largest Friday night services on campus, Rich notes that services are intimate and “students can come and have a nice, relaxing experience.”
Students have the opportunity to engage with Israel through the Hummus Society, which is a space to have open and honest conversations about the Middle East. They can also partake in Birthright, a free ten-day heritage trip to Israel.
“The nice thing about Birthright is that there are so many different elements to it,” said Woodard. “There is the religious element, there’s the cultural element, there’s the historical element, music, food. People find out what they’re interested in and dig into the things they find really meaningful. It’s another outlet for students to engage in an important part of Jewish life.”
Hillel also offers multiple classes on Judaism: there is a mussar class, which focuses on Jewish ethics, and the Jewish Learning Fellowship, a ten-week seminar on life’s big questions.
“We want to be for everyone,” Rich said. “Jewish means so many different things. It means different levels of religious observance, it means different cultural backgrounds and it means different degrees to wish people identify as Jewish. We want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable, and we really want people to connect their personal values and their academic and personal interests to Hillel.”
Justin Weiss is the senior features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.