College life offers a virtually unlimited array of extracurricular opportunities for students to unwind, often with a purely social emphasis. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But for local Jewish students looking for something deeper, they may be able to find what they seek at Hillel Jewish University Center, where Jewish learning takes a prominent role.
“It makes a difference for me to have Jewish education in the programming,” said Alyssa Berman, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. “It makes the programming way more meaningful. We can get together with friends for the fun and frivolous things, but when I go to Hillel, I want some meat behind it.”
Hillel JUC was recognized for its emphasis on education on Dec. 12, when it received the Joseph Meyerhoff Award for Jewish Educational Vision at the Hillel International Global Assembly in Denver. The award honors a Hillel that enables students to continue to grow in their knowledge of and connection to Jewish life, and “be empowered to make life decisions using Jewish values,” according to hillel.org.
For the past several years, Hillel JUC has amped up its emphasis on education, focusing not only on Jewish learning for its students, but also for its staff, according to Daniel Marcus, its executive director and CEO.
“I’m particularly proud that the Hillel JUC was recognized with the Jewish Educational Vision award because our staff team and our student leadership are really dedicated to ensuring this runs through all of the DNA of the Hillel JUC,” Marcus said. “We also are mindful to ensure that Jewish meaning and values and content runs through all of our activities. … That can be everything from the obvious — Shabbat and holiday experiences — to our Jewish Greek life activities to our social and cultural activities.”
That content includes Jewish “cultural traditions, Israel, Hebrew, core Jewish text, global Jewish peoplehood and the cycle of the Jewish year,” he said.
Marcus praised Hillel JUC’s senior Jewish educator, Danielle Kranjec, for her work in providing learning opportunities for the Hillel community.
Kranjec has “ensured that all staff and all student leaders have the skills and have the abilities to also be Jewish educators,” Marcus noted. Her role, he said, differs from that of most other senior Jewish educators at other Hillels, posts often held by rabbis who are engagement professionals, with a focus on going out onto campus and meeting with students.
Participation at Hillel events has increased as a result of infusing Jewish education and values into its programming, Marcus said.
The Meyerhoff award specifically recognized Hillel JUC for its Ignite Summit, a weekend of student-led learning and discussion, which in February 2018 was centered on the arrival of a 300-year-old Torah from Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle. The congregation closed in December 2017 and gifted the Torah to Hillel JUC.
The Torah was passed down through the Mirow family for more than 200 years until the Nazi invasion of Poland. It was later rediscovered in the 1970s tucked inside a wall in the former family home. From there, it was smuggled out of Poland and in 1975, sent to New Castle, where descendants of the Mirow family still live.
Kranjec viewed the receiving of the Torah as “a real opportunity to, in a tangible way, connect our students both to the local Western Pennsylvania Jewish community and to their Jewish past,” she said. “I very carefully crafted a vision for how we could maximize this gift in terms of experiential Jewish education: that the actual experience of welcoming in the Torah, dancing with the Torah, touching the Torah, receiving the Torah, and then the following day reading from the Torah, would give as many students as possible access to feeling like the Torah was really for them. It was very special.”
More than 250 students turned out for the Shabbat evening dinner and service, breaking the previous attendance record.
Members of Temple Hadar Israel joined with the Hillel community for the summit.
“One of the beautiful things about our tradition is how intellectual we are, but sometimes having that physical, experiential, almost visceral connection to something makes it more real,” Kranjec said. “Seeing a group of treasured elders trusting the students with something so sacred and so irreplaceable was incredibly empowering.”
This is Kranjec’s sixth year as Hillel JUC’s senior Jewish educator, and she has learned by experience the “power of very deep but also relevant Jewish content,” she said. “We as educators should not be afraid to take risks. And by take risks, I mean teach about things in a very real, deep way that is connected to our texts and our historical past.
“I think there is this impulse that we have to make everything fun when we are working with young people, but there is a limit to that, and the students are hungry for meaning,” she added.
Jamie Schachter, who graduated from Pitt last year and is now a Springboard Fellow at The Ohio State University Hillel, agrees.
College can be a “crazy” time, Schachter said, which makes meaningful Jewish programming essential. “Uncompromisable Jewish values are important and help move us forward.”
This year’s Ignite Summit will be held Feb. 8-9, and will feature an appearance by actress Mayim Bialik (“Blossom,” “The Big Bang Theory”). Bialik, who is donating her time, will be talking to the students about being Jewish in Hollywood, and also anti-Semitism and Israel, according to Marcus. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at