Hillel: Jews on Campus

A changing organization for a changing student body.

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In spring 2003, during the height of the Second Intifada, pro-Israel students at the University of California-San Diego handed out condoms on campus that read, "Israel: It's still safe to come." This provocative--and popular--Israel advocacy tool was part of a larger UCSD Hillel campaign entitled "Got Israel?" The condoms also included information that compared sexual freedom and women's rights in Israel to those in other Middle Eastern countries.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus LifeThroughout its history, Hillel has strived to make contact--a lasting, meaningful contact--with Jewish college students. The "Got Israel?" campaign is just one of several techniques developed by Hillel in its colorful and sometimes controversial campaign to engage a Jewish student population in a social marketplace that's stuffed full with spiritual and cultural options. The techniques are new, but the sentiment is not. In a way, it's what Hillel has been doing since its inception.

An Unusual Good Samaritan

For a Jewish organization, Hillel had an unusual beginning. It was conceived in 1923 by Dr. Edward Chauncey Baldwin, a liberal Protestant and professor of biblical literature at the University of Illinois. According to historian Winton Solberg, Baldwin believed that the Jews "had been preserved to contribute further to the spiritual life of the modern world." Disturbed by what he perceived as an overwhelming ignorance among Jewish students of their heritage, Baldwin approached Jewish leaders, asking them to address the problem of young people who, according to Solberg, "were moving out of Jewish life in terrifying numbers."

At the same time, others in the local Jewish community saw the need to reach out to the growing Jewish student population at the University of Illinois. Isaac Kuhn, a successful clothier in Champaign, and several other Jewish figures banded together with Baldwin to engage the growing population of Jewish students at the university.

The Rise, Decline, and Rebirth of Hillel

Later in 1923, Baldwin and Kuhn approached Benjamin Frankel, a young, charismatic Reform student rabbi at Sinai Temple in Champaign. Frankel eagerly agreed to their proposition to serve simultaneously as the town's rabbi and as the religious adviser to the university's Jewish students.

With the support of the local Jewish community, Rabbi Frankel conducted both Reform and Orthodox services, taught classes in Hebrew and the Bible, and held social programs for students. According to Abram Sachar, Frankel's successor and close friend, Frankel chose to name the new society "Hillel" after the first-century rabbi because he was "a symbol of the quest for higher learning."

In 1925, Frankel secured B'nai B'rith International's sponsorship for the fledgling organization, allowing Hillel to expand its presence to the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, and University of Wisconsin. In 1933, Abram Sachar, a history professor at the University of Illinois, filled the position of Hillel's first full-time national director.

Prior to the 1950s, there were no Jewish Studies departments at non-sectarian American universities. Sachar, an academic, created Hillels that were centers of Jewish learning (mostly consisting of Hebrew classes) in addition to religious and social programming. Though Hillel now served a range of functions for Jewish students--including being a hotspot for Jewish dating--it was still primarily known as the campus synagogue, offering religious services, kosher dining, and pastoral counseling.

Ironically, because of its success, Hillel was associated with the establishment, and thus was subjected to a backlash from Jewish students in the 1960s. In addition, anti-Semitic organizational policies of the previous decades, which had once encouraged Jews to stick together, gave way to civil rights victories and the dominance of a melting-pot mentality. Jewish students found that they had less of a need for the haven that Hillel provided.

Meanwhile, Sachar and his successors were trying to reach beyond the financial support of B'nai B'rith, turning to Jewish Federations to strengthen Hillel's presence on college campuses. In turn, these federations often demanded control over much of the organizational decision-making process. By the 1970s, Hillel lacked a solid central base that could offer the patronage and infrastructure necessary to unify the individual branches under a single organization.

With these concerns in mind, Hillel began a search for a new chief executive officer to jumpstart the organization. The search committee settled on the unlikely choice of Richard Joel, a 37-year-old attorney and Yeshiva University dean. Jay Rubin, Hillel's former executive vice president, says that Joel's selection "symbolized the desperate condition of the organization…he was not a rabbi, in an organization historically identified with the rabbinate. He was a Modern Orthodox Jew in an organization desperate to attract non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews. He had no prior involvement with Hillel."

Jewish College Students in the Spotlight

When Richard Joel assumed office in 1988, he inherited a declining organization. It was strapped for funds, and across the nation, Hillel rabbis were locked in power struggles with Federation executives over campus programming and finances. He recognized that, in order to grow, Hillel needed to cut its ties with B'nai B'rith, and in 1994, it did.
College students
Around that time, Hillel found itself pushed back onto the national stage. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that the national intermarriage rate was a staggering 52%, and, while some debated the accuracy of this statistic, the American Jewish community decided to focus its attention and resources on Jewish continuity. Jewish youth and young adults became the focal point of their attention.

Joel's goal was that Hillel would become a solution to this continuity crisis. The organization's motto became "maximizing the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews." Prominent donors such as Edgar M. Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, and Lynn Schusterman began to support the organization. Hillel grew into an international franchise, and now has 27 centers in the Former Soviet Union, nine in Israel, and four in South America.

Hillel in the 21st Century

In its initial years, Hillel functioned as a place on campus where they could socialize with other Jews, eat kosher meals, and attend religious services. Recently, Hillel has worked hard to refashion its image in order to appeal to a population that may not connect to traditional elements of organized Jewish life, and who barely have enough free time to balance academic, social, and personal calendars, let alone attend a Hillel program.

In addition, a recent challenge to Hillel is the growing presence of emissaries from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement on campus. Jewish sociologists observe that Chabad's success on campus depends largely on its ability to create an intimately Jewish “home away from home” for students, a phrase that used to characterize Hillel Houses in the first half of the 20th century.

Most campus Hillels today offer a wide range of opportunities, from more traditional communal Shabbat dinners to free Birthright trips to Israel and Alternative Spring Break programs that stress social justice and charity work.

However, as any Hillel professional will admit, the organization is only reaching a small fraction of Jewish students. To this end, Hillel created the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, a project that charges 12 students on each of several college campuses to build relationships with uninvolved Jewish students during the school year.

The project hypothesizes that student-to-student engagement will be more effective than interactions between students and professionals. It could not be further from the rabbinic-led model put forth by Rabbi Frankel in Hillel's early days, but if the story from UC-San Diego is any indication, Hillel is not an organization that is averse to trying new things.

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Preston Neal

Preston Neal, an L.A.-based freelance writer, was the 2007-2008 Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow for Hillel at Binghamton University. He holds a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies with High Honors from Brandeis University.