For Hillel of Sonoma County, a different set of challenges

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San Francisco Hillel has its hands full, serving students who attend 10 institutes of higher learning, from an arts college to a law school to a Jesuit university. Hillel of Silicon Valley is busy, too, serving students on five college campuses.

They — and the Hillels at Stanford and in Berkeley and Davis — also have to deal (sometimes) with anti-Israel activity and (less often) anti-Semitic issues on campus.

But up north in Sonoma County, Hillel life is a bit more serene.

Sarah Sterne

Active since 1999, Hillel of Sonoma County serves only two campuses, Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park and, nine miles to the north, Santa Rosa Junior College — a pair of small campuses, with small Jewish populations, that will never be mistaken for a UCLA or a University of Michigan.

“Hillel looks different from one school to another,” said Sarah Sterne, director of Hillel of Sonoma County.

Since there aren’t any active divest-from-Israel campaigns or anti-Israel demonstrations on either campus, Sonoma Hillel can focus its attention on building membership, hosting events and getting students interested in visiting Israel.

It’s there to bring unity to a largely unaffiliated and somewhat far-flung pool of Jewish students.

“Our mission is to inspire young Jews and create connection with them,” said Sterne, 25, who took over as director eight months ago with modest goals: continued growth at Sonoma State and better outreach to Jewish students at Santa Rosa Junior College.Sonoma State has 9,500 students, but just 200 of those describe themselves as Jewish, according to Sterne, who boasts that 120 of those 200 are members of Hillel. Many of the Jewish students are not from Sonoma County, and they look to Hillel to help shape their Jewish identities and provide them with a sense of belonging.

“Judaism has always been part of my life, and I didn’t want to stop that because I was going to college,” said Marlie Cymberg, 19, a freshman at Sonoma State who grew up in Long Beach and was deeply involved with the Chabad community there.

As someone who went to a private Jewish day school from kindergarten through 12th grade, she was thrown for a loop when she arrived in Sonoma County to attend college. “People here aren’t very connected to their Judaism,” she observed.

Through her work as a Hillel intern, Cymberg said she wants to help expand the group’s membership and reach at Sonoma State.

Sterne has the same goals at Santa Rosa Junior College, where Hillel’s presence has resumed during the 2015-16 school year after being shut down for three years due to lack of student involvement.

Information table at a campus club fair at Sonoma State photos/courtesy hillel of sonoma county

A native of Southern California, Sterne comes from a background steeped in Jewish community: Her family belonged to a big congregation in Los Angeles, and she attended American Jewish University in Los Angeles, a school she described as “one big Hillel.”

In 2014, she moved to Sonoma County, where her husband had grown up, and found a disparate, unaffiliated Jewish community very different from the one in which she was raised. Jews in Sonoma, she said, don’t necessarily want a Jewish organization with which to affiliate; either that, or they’ve never been affiliated with a Jewish group and find joining Hillel to be a scary step.

Name recognition has proven to be an obstacle, too, especially at Santa Rosa Junior College. There, not only are the 38,000 students of many ages and backgrounds, but almost all of them are commuter students, and some might be on campus for only one or two classes. Sterne isn’t even sure how many Jews attend SRJC, she said.

Thus, getting SRJC students interested in Hillel has proven to be quite a challenge. “We tried tabling, and that didn’t work,” said Channah Rosen, 18, a freshman at SRJC and president of the Hillel there. “At the junior college, we want to create an actual base, get a solid group and grow from there.”

Rosen, who grew up in Santa Rosa and was involved with a youth group at Congregation Shomrei Torah, considers Hillel a vital social network at a community college where it’s difficult to make personal connections.

Playing a card game in the Hillel sukkah

But she and her fellow interns are having enough trouble finding other Jews let alone getting them interested in Hillel. New tactics are being tried, she said, such as going into classrooms, advertising and getting an article printed in the school newspaper.

Speaking of getting its name out there, Hillel of Sonoma County was mentioned in a recent press release put out by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, one announcing a big new initiative involving all eight Hillels in Northern California. The Campus Initiative on Israel Engagement, which will cost an estimated $1.6 million over three years, aims to help students find meaningful attachment to Israel, and bolster their Jewish engagement and identity, in the face of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and other efforts to de-legitimizate Israel.

“Fortunately, we don’t have an active BDS movement in Sonoma County,” Sterne said. “Through our programming, we’re hoping to put our name out there and create a positive image for the Jewish community.”

That programming includes events such as a recent informational gathering at which students, Jewish or not, learned about various travel opportunities to Israel. One non-Jewish attendee, Andrea Aviles Cigarrostegui, a political science student at Sonoma State who wants to be a diplomat, said she heard about the event through Hillel of Sonoma County’s Facebook page.

Hillel also hosts Shabbat dinners, study rooms and events such as an upcoming skate night at the roller rink in Rohnert Park. It also co-hosts activities with other campus groups, such as a trivia night with the Black Student Union. In March, students are encouraged to come in Purim costume for a hamantaschen-making party, and in pajamas for a showing of the movie “Pajama Party.” In April, an overnight retreat is on the schedule.

Hillel of Sonoma County used to run its operation out of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, not too far from the SSU campus. Currently, Hillel shares space with the Newman Catholic Center just off campus and is looking at finding a space to call its own. The goal, said Stern, is to have a spot within the next two to three years.

“We are currently in the idea phase of seeking a permanent home,” Sterne said. “We are currently doing research as to land cost and the cost to build. Our goal is to launch our campaign and begin fundraising this summer.”

Bottom line, said Sterne: “A permanent place will allow us to be fully immersive in Judaism. If we can find the right space near campus, students can stop by at any point. We’ll be available to serve the Jewish student population. We’re focusing on Hillel feeling like a home away from home.”

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.