Hillels crowd-pleasing barbecue kicks off school year

Back-to-school at U.C. Berkeley is marked by the frenzied rush of new class schedules, lingering summer heat and, for students at Hillel, the first kosher barbecue of the year.

Roughly 200 students piled into the Hillel building on Bancroft Way Aug. 24 to greet friends and enjoy a free dinner prepared by Hillel student volunteers.

Berkeley Hillel has hosted these weekly gatherings since 2002, when undergrads Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom cooked up the idea in the Hillel kitchen. Their event was a huge success; it became a key part of the organization’s programming. (It also set the stage for Beckerman and Bloom to start their own restaurant, Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in San Francisco.)

U.C. Berkeley students line up for free kosher barbecue at Hillel. photo/leigh cuen

These days, Berkeley Hillel is not the only chapter in the Bay Area to host weekly barbecues. In fact, several do. San Francisco Hillel, which serves all Jewish college students in the city, feeds an average of 50 students a week at its kosher barbecues. But Berkeley Hillel is the one with triple-digit attendance and an even bigger bill.

It costs $24,000 a year to put on the free barbecues for students. But all that chicken has proved a wise investment. Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, Hillel’s executive director, said that each year 1,200 to 1,500 students participate in Hillel-facilitated events, ranging from Shabbat dinners to lectures to Birthright Israel trips. The weekly barbecues have become a staple of Jewish life on campus and serve as the “gateway” event that entices many students to explore their Jewish identities further.

That is exactly what happened when senior Jessica Nevins came to the barbecue two years ago. “I didn’t do a lot my first year,” she said, with tongs in hand as she grilled the night’s first round of hot dogs. “My second I wanted to do more. The first thing I did was come help cook for a barbecue! Ever since, I’ve been coming back.”

Known to her friends as “Queen of the Barbecue,” Nevins is also a Hillel development intern and works at the front desk. This semester she is taking her first Hebrew class in anticipation of the upcoming winter Birthright trip. “This community really has changed my college experience,” said Nevins. She also described how Hillel has changed her religious experience. ”I started coming more on Fridays to Shabbat dinners, and that got me going to services. Having a community for the High Holy Days got me more involved,” she said. “I wouldn’t have done it on my own.”

While Nevins was in the backyard with the smoldering barbecue, more student volunteers were getting ready for the big evening, carving watermelon and scrubbing dishes in the kitchen. A few chatted and dipped their fingers into the dough left over from baking a batch of 160 chocolate cinnamon cookies. Some members of the First Year Network, a Hillel group that sponsors freshman activities, were just returning from a recruitment mission. They’d been parading around campus with signs plastered with Stars of David and the seductive slogan: “Free Food.”

FYN member Spencer Book said he was pleased to come to a college with a much larger Jewish population than his hometown of Santa Barbara. “We have such a great Jewish community here at Cal,” he said. “And everyone knows each other and is really cool and friendly. Almost all of the friends that I’ve made in college are Jewish.”

The barbecue is a secular event — there’s no ritual protocol or prayer — so it’s an opportunity for Hillel to branch out to the rest of the community. Several non-Jewish students usually attend as guests of Jewish students.

Naftalin-Kelman said that sharing kosher meals is an important part of creating vibrant Jewish life on campus. “Food plays a prominent role in our tradition, which a lot of times revolves around meal celebrations,” he said.

By 6 p.m., when the doors opened to welcome diners, the entrance to Berkeley’s Hillel house teemed with students, confirming the power of a good barbecue.