In just about a week, Jews throughout the world will be inspired by the light of the nine-branch menorah which commemorates the festival of Chanukah.
But the staff of Pittsburgh’s Hillel Jewish University Center is inspired all year by a menorah of a different type, one the team created and that sports seven branches, like the one kindled in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Housed in its offices on Forbes Avenue, each branch of the menorah represents a different Jewish value, and every program or event run by the Hillel JUC is infused with one or more of those values, according to the organization’s executive director and CEO Dan Marcus.
It is the permeation of those Jewish values into its programming that has led Hillel JUC to be one of the top three Hillels across the country in terms of impact, and the organization was recognized for its success with an Excellence in Impact Award last week at the Hillel International Global Assembly, held in Orlando, Fla.
The other two top Hillels based on impact are the Santa Barbara Hillel and the Hillel at the University of Virginia.
Hillel JUC is one of about 80 Hillels across the country that are part of Hillel International’s Comprehensive Excellence Initiative, which imparts a set of engagement goals to engage a significant number of students with Jewish life, learning, and Israel. Impact is then measured by surveying students and analyzing the effect of Hillel programming on their Jewish connections.
Last year, Hillel JUC had “a very substantive effect on Jewish growth,” said Jennifer Zwilling, vice president of strategic initiatives for Hillel International.
Zwilling attributes the success of Hillel JUC to its emphasis on education.
“Dan Marcus has been thoughtful in building a program not just on social events, and has invested in his staff to be focused on education as well,” she said, giving a nod to Hillel JUC’s “wonderful Jewish educator,” Danielle Kranjec.
The values infused into each Hillel JUC program — signified by the branches of the menorah — are: cycle of the Jewish year; cultural traditions; Israel; Hebrew language; core text and values; and global Jewish peoplehood. The seventh branch, in the center of the menorah, represents the Hillel JUC staff, Marcus said.
“Everything we do has one or more of those elements ingrained in each activity and event,” he explained. “And running through all that is the staff at the Hillel JUC.”
The work of the Hillel JUC is focused on developing Jewish student leadership, as well as educating the staff, to help impart those values.
“One Jewish student can affect five more Jewish students,” Marcus observed. “We always have an eye on how to develop leadership, and how to maximize Jewish values through the staff and the student leadership.”
The Hillel JUC staff is continually learning, including through the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, and other regular educational programs. The staff then passes on that knowledge to student leaders, who in turn can pass it on to other students.
There are approximately 2,000 Jewish students among the seven campuses that Hillel JUC serves — University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, Point Park University, Robert Morris University, Carlow University and the Community College of Allegheny County. Of those 2,000 students, 1,297 were engaged in at least one of Hillel JUC’s umbrella activities during the 2015-2016 academic year, according to Marcus.
“My staff and I are so thrilled to win this award for impact,” Marcus said. “It is most satisfying and inspiring.”
Marcus also received an award for his 15 years of service to the Hillel International community. He began his tenure with the organization in 2001 serving as the Hillel JUC’s programming director for Carnegie Mellon University, and then as its assistant director. In 2006, he became executive director of the Hillel at Johns Hopkins University, followed by a position as the chief executive of the Union of Jewish Students in Great Britain. He has been executive director and CEO of Hillel JUC since 2012.
Penn State Hillel also was recognized at the Global Assembly last week. It was awarded as a Top 5 University with Greatest Improvement in Breadth, a certificate for achieving significant improvement in student engagement as part of Hillel International’s Measuring Excellence program.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.