New Hillel 20-something group reaching beyond the South Bay

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Tmirah Haselkorn, 21, recently enjoyed dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Palo Alto with a group of other young Jews.

For Haselkorn, who has moved back home after graduating from U.C. Berkeley, the dinner with singles and couples from Stanford University's Hillel offered more than a good meal; it was a pressure-free opportunity to meet other young Jews.

"There was no tension. The people were easy to relate to, very friendly, and we all had a lot in common socially and academically," she says.

That dinner and other Jewishly-flavored events are part of 20-somethings, a new Stanford Hillel program that reaches beyond the campus to gather graduates and other young Jews into a community.

Lisa Wolk, 21, directs 20-somethings. After graduating from Occidental College in Los Angeles, Wolk was named one of 50 Hillel Jewish Campus Service Fellows nationwide. They have one year to expand the organization from a university-based group into a communitywide movement.

Wolk says 20-somethings fills a social, and Jewish, void for a certain generation.

"Hillel's 20-somethings is for people who just got out of college, or might be between undergraduate and graduate school, or are new to the area," she says.

"They find the synagogue is either geared towards singles, families or seniors. They are looking for people to meet and a place to have fun. We are not a singles group with a dating purpose. We are a social group."

Hillel's growing plans coincided with proposals by members of the Peninsula community that people between 20 and 30 years old might enjoy connecting with the graduate students who belong to Hillel.

The community members offered to fund and help develop the endeavor.

Rabbi Ari Cartun, executive director of the Hillel Foundation at Stanford University, welcomed the idea.

"We offer 20-somethings one more avenue to connect with the Jewish community. They want what they know and what they know best is Hillel," he says.

"Hillel has to play its part to respond."

As part of her fellowship, Wolk was trained in combining the university and community populations. She learned that Hillel chapters in other cities offer similar programs, but adds that Stanford has the only such effort in Northern California.

And the need for 20-somethings is clear.

When the group began in August, the mailing list included only 10 people. Now it lists more than 100 names.

"People are calling every day," Wolk says. "The word is out through e-mail, synagogue bulletins, and just people telling one another."

In fact, the word has spread beyond the South Bay. People from as far away as Oakland have attended the group's events, which mainly take place on the Stanford campus, and include activities such as Shabbat dinners, a weekly coffee house, and lectures.

The group has proven so popular that Wolk foresees Hillel's outreach role progressing even after her fellowship is completed.

"It's vital to the community," she says.