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Hillel on campus is thriving

Contrary to the concerns raised in the Forward earlier this week, Hillel is more relevant for and resonant with young Jews today than ever before. As we welcome a rising generation of college students that is more diverse in every way than all those who have come before them, Hillel’s singular brand of pluralistic and radically inclusive Judaism is uniquely positioned to meet this moment.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just consider that in the last full academic year before the pandemic, more than 140,000 students walked into a Hillel building, had coffee with a Hillel professional, celebrated Shabbat and Jewish holidays at Hillel, traveled to Israel on one of hundreds of Hillel-led trips, or otherwise invited Hillel into their lives. That’s more than any other year in our 99-year history.

Even when the pandemic took in-person engagement off the table, our Hillels made sure we were there for students. Our innovative online programs reached more than 100,000 people; our virtual ritual celebrations, including Higher Holidays, generated more than 50,000 viewing streams; and tens of thousands of person-to-person engagements supported Jewish students through the trauma and disruption of the pandemic. Now that students have largely returned to campus, we are rapidly returning to the full scale and complement of in-person experiences that infuse Hillels around the world with our unique brand of ruach and Jewish life.

One of the critical ingredients supporting our sustained growth and success is Hillel’s incredible wellspring of professional talent: 1,200 highly trained professionals serving Jewish students on more than 550 campuses across 17 countries. Our diverse community of Jewish educators model to our students that Jews of every age, gender, background, denomination, and sexual orientation can be leaders in their field. In that regard, our deep commitment to egalitarianism is reflected in the incredible breadth of our female leadership on campus and at Hillel International. And by cultivating early career talent through innovative programs like the Hillel Springboard Fellowship and our “IACT” engagement roles, Hillel continues to serve as a significant pipeline for professionals across the Jewish nonprofit sector.

Another chief reason for our success is that at Hillel, students are encouraged to explore their Jewish journeys in the way that is right for them. We embrace and celebrate all students, no matter their previous level of Jewish knowledge, their Jewish family backgrounds, or how they choose to express their Judaism. Whether or not a student has celebrated a B’nai mitzvah, is part of an interfaith family, is affiliated with a denomination, or is “Just Jewish,” identifies as a Jew of Color, LGBTQ+, Mizrahi, Sephardi, or however they arrive at their Jewish identity, Hillel is a space and community for them to engage in Jewish life and progress on their Jewish journeys.

Hillels provide those opportunities through an unparalleled breadth of avenues. That’s why in any given Hillel on any given day you’ll encounter students engaged in and leading a wide range of experiences — from diverse ritual services, to contemporary Jewish learning opportunities, to service and other Tikkun Olam initiatives, to leadership development experiences, to cultural and social programs, to cross-community relationship building, and beyond. What’s more, students are encouraged to do more than just be consumers of their Jewish experiences; at Hillel, our students take responsibility for creating and leading in ways that will enable them to self-author their Jewish futures.

Because Israel is a core part of our collective history, theology, identity, and global Jewish community, we offer students a plethora of ways to engage with and immerse themselves in Israel, while reflecting and honoring the diversity of their backgrounds, perspectives, and interests. We are proud to be the largest provider of Israel education and engagement opportunities for college-aged Jews in North America — home to 70 Jewish Agency Israel Fellows and 29 Israel-centered engagement professionals, the largest recruiter of students for Birthright Israel and Onward Israel experiences, host for thousands of on-campus Israel engagement speakers and programs each year, and facilitator of a wide range of Israel education courses. What’s more, Hillel plays a critical role in combating the demonization of Israel that gets expressed through BDS and similar anti-Israel campaigns. In addition, Hillel serves seven university campuses in Israel, where we create space for Jewish pluralism and strengthen connections between students in Israel in the diaspora.

Hillel is also leading the national movement to counter antisemitism on campus. Earlier this fall, our student-driven#OwnYourStar social media campaign empowered thousands of Jewish students to stand up against antisemitism on their college campuses and online by sharing personal and heartfelt stories of Jewish pride. And in Feb., Hillel will partner with the American Jewish Committee and the American Council on Education to convene the University Presidents Summit on Antisemitism, a gathering that will bring together college and university presidents from across the country to address the campus climate for Jewish students.

Our pluralism and inclusivity at Hillel is not only represented within the communities we nurture, but also in our relationships with other organizations serving Jewish students. That includes Chabad on Campus, just as it also includes organizations as diverse as Avodah, Challah for Hunger, Gift of Life, Tamid, and on and on — because at Hillel we believe there are as many pathways to a meaningful connection to Jewish life as there are Jewish students to serve.

Simply put, the only competition we and other Jewish organizations face is to be the best versions of ourselves. In Hillel’s case, that means using our unique scale, philosophy, and talent to inspire and empower the next generation of Jews, so they can in turn enrich the Jewish people and the world. Knowing the progress we continue to make toward that goal, we are both energized and optimistic about our path forward and the vibrant Jewish future we’re working so passionately to create.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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