Hillel JUC has strategies to engage more students in Jewish life on campus

Hillel JUC has strategies to engage more students in Jewish life on campus

Hillel Jewish University Center welcomes students as the school year begins.
Hillel Jewish University Center welcomes students as the school year begins.

Incoming Jewish freshmen have not yet unpacked their bags or begun to get settled into their University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University dorms, but the folks at Hillel Jewish University Center have nonetheless been working for months on strategies to get them involved in Jewish life on campus.

Hillel’s aim, according to its executive director and CEO Aaron Weil, is to find ways of reaching Jewish students coming from a wide range of backgrounds and with varied interests.

“Hillel doesn’t have a goal to get people involved in Hillel,” he said. “Hillel is the vehicle, not the destination. Our goal is a vibrant Jewish campus life for Pittsburgh universities. As the umbrella group for Jewish campus life in Pittsburgh, our goal is to build a big tent where all the Jewish campus organizations can thrive, building a community of communities.”

No longer just an organization promoting and facilitating Judaism as a religion, Hillel JUC’s emphasis has turned to peoplehood, according to Weil.

“Hillel is now part of the multicultural center, rather than a religious organization,” Weil said. “There is a greater emphasis on Jewish peoplehood, made up of five aspects: common language, common land, common history, common culture and common faith. It’s like five legs on a stool. Any number of students will find at least three in common with each other. We are not limiting ourselves to a mere spiritual organization. We have a much broader reach.”

To facilitate that reach, Hillel JUC is working on models of engagement that emphasize students reaching out to other students.

“The point is, how do we engage students that aren’t necessarily going to walk right in the door at Hillel?” said David Katz, assistant director of Hillel JUC, and director of J’Burgh. “We want to touch base with them, and to let them know there is a community.”

Currently, Hillel JUC touches only about 38 to 40 percent of the 2,000 Jewish students at Pitt, according to Weil. Compare that to the University of Pennsylvania, where the market penetration of organizations under the Hillel umbrella is 97 percent of Jewish students on campus, and it is apparent that Hillel JUC has some work to do.  

One means by which Hillel JUC hopes to widen its reach is its Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (CEI), a pilot program at the University of Pittsburgh, designed to utilize peer relationships to reach out to Jewish students who may not otherwise get involved in campus Jewish activities.  

Through CEI, Hillel JUC has employed eight student interns with broad social networks to build relationships with other Jewish students who are less involved with Jewish activities. The interns work to understand students’ interests, and then connect them to opportunities that they may find meaningful.

“The ultimate goal is to reach students where they are and enhance that experience,” said Annie Lascoe, the Janet L. Swanson Director of Jewish Student Life at Pitt. “It’s a really wonderful model.”

Weil expects the CEI program to significantly increase the percentage of Jewish organizational involvement.

“CEI will be a force multiplier,” he said. “With CEI, we expect our market penetration to grow north of 67 percent in about three years.”

The Campus Entrepreneurs also will provide ongoing relationship building, including follow-ups to immersive experiences such as Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. CEI is funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

“We have been moving more to a model of peer to peer engagement,” said Benji Berlow, director of Jewish student life for Carnegie Mellon University.

“In previous years, it was staff driven. We are now experimenting with different forms of peer to peer models.”

In addition to the eight CEI interns, Hillel’s new Herman and Helen Lipsitz Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, Aharon David, promises to help energize Jewish life on campus. This is the first time in five years that Hillel has had an Israel Fellow, whose role is to run programs on Israel, including those on advocacy for the Jewish state and to lead Israel trips. Prior to this, Hillel had a few hours a week from the community shlicha at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

David’s fellowship comes at a time when student interest in Israel is on the rise. Last year, six students active at Hillel JUC made aliya en masse.

Timing was also right for an Israel Fellow, Weil said, because of recent anti-Israel activity on campus.

“One reason to have an Israel Fellow is that we need to have a professional able to create a safe space on campus for more three-dimensional conversations on Israel,” Weil said. “We want to teach students how to love Israel, and to understand that Israel is family. We sometimes have our differences, but our support for one another is always there.”

Although a lot of student engagement begins before freshmen arrive on campus — for example, contact through high schools, youth groups, and pre-enrollment visits to the universities —Hillel has “a really exciting orientation week planned as well,” said Lascoe.

Events on the Hillel calendar are varied that first week, which begins Aug. 19, and include  “Kosher Primanti’s,” Israeli dance, a falafel fest, a Shabbat dinner, and a screening of  “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.”

Having an active, thriving Hillel can be a boon to the Pittsburgh Jewish community at large, according to Weil.

“Jewish students make up the largest minority group at the University of Pittsburgh,” he said. “There has been a 34 percent increase in the number of Jewish undergraduates since 2004, and over 95 percent of those undergraduates are not from Pittsburgh. They are mostly from New York, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. That really makes our Hillel a gateway for attracting a young and very employable population for our city.”

 (Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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