Hillels do their homework on recruiting new students

Every fall, Hillel directors face the daunting task of engaging students — already so busy with campus actitivies — in Jewish life as well.

This means competing for students’ attention with schoolwork, socializing, sports practice, theater rehearsal and dozens of other pursuits.

Northern California Hillels have already begun planning their fall calendars, keeping in mind what they call the ongoing challenge of reaching unaffiliated Jews.

Gordon Gladstone, the acting executive director of U.C. Berkeley Hillel, plans to reach out especially to freshmen, transfer students and graduate students, with an open-house event, barbecue, retreat over Labor Day weekend to the Marin Headlands, and a wine and cheese party for grad students.

U.C. Berkeley has a Jewish undergraduate population of 2,500 to 3,000, according to Gladstone. Approximately 300 come to Hillel’s largest events, but Gladstone would like to see many more.

He expects to draw several hundred students to Reform and Conservative High Holy Days services. And though he was pleased overall with “the quality, quantity and breadth” of programming this past school year, he is looking forward to the programs Sarah Stern O’Connor and Steven Kraft, the new Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellows, will initiate next fall.

In the South Bay, a major construction project will change the face of Stanford Hillel. When students return to campus, they will be welcomed into the 9,500-square-foot Koret Pavilion at the $11.35 million Harold and Libby Ziff Center for Jewish Life. The new space will provide wireless access andl house large programming rooms, a kosher kitchen, a prayer space and a student lounge.

Hillel Executive Director Adina Danzig said the building is open to Jewish students, alumni and the entire university community to hold events and relax. “It’s a very exciting time,” she said.

The first phase included construction of the Taube Hillel House, which opened its doors over two years ago.

The relaxed atmosphere that Danzig hopes to foster is part of her larger goal next year: to reach out to overburdened students. “We’re taking seriously our role as a place that can counterbalance the tremendous stress students face.” Hillel will expand counseling services and offer more programs on spiritual exploration.

Danzig said last year she focused on building grad student programming. After Hillel decided a year ago to include grad students in its mission statement, Stanford Hillel hired a part-time staffer to facilitate this.

The increased attention has worked: Danzig estimated that an additional 200 grad students became regular participants last year. She hopes to continue drawing them with social events for holidays, something these students in particular have requested, she said.

In San Francisco, Anja Litvak, a third-year law student at the New College of California, said she loves getting together with Jewish graduate students for Shabbat dinner at San Francisco Hillel. The weekly tradition that started last semester draws 25 to 40 participants. It’s “a great way to be Jewish openly and celebrate Shabbat with your people,” she said.

Litvak, the president of her school’s Jewish Student Association and a S.F. Hillel board member, would like more students to feel welcome at Hillel. “When everyone thinks of Hillel they think of San Francisco State. I want to see Hillel as more applicable to all the schools.”

Alon Shalev, S.F. Hillel’s executive director, plans to place special emphasis on engaging grad students in the coming year, with Hillel’s grad student life coordinator planning events.

Rick Zinman, Santa Cruz Hillel executive director, is also looking to expand programming. Too often, he said, students are only exposed to those with like points of view.

That’s why he plans to create platforms on campus next year for moderate, scholarly voices on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Zinman wants to

engage a range of opinions in discussions.

This spirit of dialogue extends to Hillel’s relationship with the local Chabad. Last fall the two organizations began co-sponsoring “Shabbat 200” — aiming to draw 200 students to religious services — once a quarter.

Zinman estimates that Hillel reaches a third to a fourth of the Jewish population at U.C. Santa Cruz, with a core group of 30 to 50 active members. He hopes to double this number in the next five years.

To accomplish this, staffers have begun spending more time on campus and less time in the off-campus Hillel House.

Likewise, Shalev and his staff at S.F. Hillel are trying to bolster their presence among the city’s 13 college campuses.

Shalev sees about 800 students regularly, but estimates there are 3,000 Jewish students in San Francisco — most of them uninvolved and unknowledgeable, he says. Shalev hopes to draw newcomers with “experiential” learning opportunities, such as last year’s Simchat Torah celebration, when students got an up-close look at the scroll. Undergraduate Shabbat dinners attract between 45-70 students, Shalev said.

Gabrielle Yedid, entering her junior year at SFSU, is passionate about reaching out to new students.

A Hillel intern since last November, she helped coordinate Shabbat activities, a Passover seder, activities for first year students, and a social-justice fair.

“Once they come, I see them just come back over and over again,” she said.

Chani Oppenheimer, executive director of Hillel at Davis and Sacramento, said Hillel serves more than 3,000 students, with 300 programs a year, including student-led Reform and Conservative Shabbat services and dinners that draw between 75 and 100 people a week.

“We’re on constantly,” Oppenheimer said. She hopes to hire additional staff, find more space for their activities and respond to a growing Islamic presence at U.C. Davis.

“[There is] a lot of Islamic fervor on campus and we’re trying to build bridges, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Last year Hillel and a Muslim group co-sponsored a non- political panel discussion on the basics of Judaism and Islam that drew an impressive crowd, Oppenheimer said. Last year was also the first time that Muslim students came to eat in the Hillel House for an interfaith potluck dinner.

And in the South Bay, Vanina Sandel, director of Jewish campus life for Silicon Valley’s Hillel, is excited about a program this fall.

“Inside Global Terrorism: From Personal Impact to Ward Responses,” will run Nov. 4 to 17 at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in San Jose. The exhibit features photographs by artist Diane Covert that use X-rays and CT-scans of survivors of terrorist attacks in Israel. Hillel will also program on global terrorism and Judea Pearl, father of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, will speak to students.

Silicon Valley Hillel serves San Jose State University, DeAnza College, Foothill College and Santa Clara University. Sandel programs campus and areawide events.

“We provide these small Jewish populations Jewish campus life [and] meaningful Jewish experiences.”