Three views | Jewish life on campus: Beyond BDS

When Jewish life at universities makes the news, it’s almost always about Israel-related controversies. But there’s more to Jewish campus life than that. As the fall semester gets underway, we asked Hillels around the Bay Area to weigh in.

Berkeley Hillel: From BBQs to seders to Matisyahu

What was Jewish life like on campus last year at U.C. Berkeley? Berkeley Hillel saw over 1,700 unique students participate in at least one event or program. There were over 140 different initiatives and events from the weekly BBQs to Shabbat dinners to five different Passover seders to an 800-person Matisyahu concert. And over the nine-month school year, 772 students were impacted by our peer-to-peer initiatives, in which students meet with their Jewish peers and take them out for coffee to engage in a meaningful Jewish conversation.

Yet the numbers paint only a small part of the picture of the vitality of Jewish life at U.C. Berkeley.

When I tell people that I’m the Hillel director at Berkeley their first comment is, “Oh that must be really hard. You’re on the front lines.” Yes, there are difficulties to this job and all too often the episodic anti-Israel protests overshadow the exciting and vibrant Jewish community that is flourishing everyday on the U.C. Berkeley campus. Yes, there are anti-Israel protests and speakers on campus and there is an amazing Jewish student body, which lives an enriching and vibrant Jewish life on campus.

What the numbers don’t show us are the countless stories and transformative experiences students have while exploring and experimenting with their Jewish identity at Cal.

One prospective student who visited the day of the Matisyahu concert was inspired at seeing our student leaders organize and execute a concert for over 800 students, which was one of the best concerts of the year on campus. That student then met with our Jewish student leaders and decided to attend Berkeley. That student came to campus looking to enrich his Jewish identity and, from the first day in the dorms, came to Hillel looking for ways to connect.

Another student who grew up in a city in which she was the only Jewish student in her high school slowly found her way to Hillel, where she relished in the opportunities provided to her to deepen her Jewish identity. She started connecting with the Jewish community through the W.J. Colen Freshman Retreat. This retreat connected her to other Jews, and for the first time in her life, she was a part of the community, not just an outsider. She continued to attend our weekly BBQ and decided to continue her involvement with Jewish life by participating in one of our nine different fellowships at Hillel.

Another student grew up in an intermarried household never celebrating Shabbat or Jewish holidays. He came to Berkeley not necessarily looking for Jewish experiences, but decided to participate in Berkeley Hillel’s winter Birthright trip. Upon returning, his Jewish soul was ignited, and he now regularly attends Shabbat dinner with his friends and has also participated in several different leadership and Jewish learning initiatives at Hillel. 

I always say to parents that the most daunting and intimidating place for Jewish students is the threshold of the Hillel building. As they walk up those stairs to the weekly BBQ, the Shabbat dinner, the student group meeting, the Challah for Hunger braiding, there are so many questions on their mind: Am I religious enough? Will my Judaism be accepted? Am I too religious? What if I don’t really believe in God? What if I don’t meet anyone there? It is our job at Hillel to help them walk through that threshold, guiding them on their Jewish journey in a pluralistic and safe environment.

We are able to do this at Cal because of the dynamic and diverse Jewish institutions, programs and opportunities that exist on campus. On the U.C. Berkeley campus alone there is a Hillel, Chabad, Center for Jewish Studies, an Institute on Israel and Jewish Law, a Jewish museum, a Jewish collection in the library and a newly minted kosher dining station in the dining hall.

This campus has all the elements for Jewish students to live a vibrant, observant and enriching Jewish life on campus. When I am asked “What is it like to be the Hillel director at U.C. Berkeley?” I can say “I work at the best institution, on the finest campus at the greatest job in the world.”

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is the executive director of U.C. Berkeley Hillel.


S.F. Hillel: Aiming to make community, not Shabbat

When Adelyn bravely came up to our S.F. Hillel table last fall, we didn’t ask her, “Which camp did you attend?” or “What shul did you go to?” We’d never see her again if we began with those assumptions.

Instead, we learned that, like many of our students, Adelyn had one Jewish parent and grew up with little Jewish background. But she was very curious about her Jewish heritage. Over a few months, our team built a relationship. We sent her to Israel with Birthright over winter break. She’s now the co-president of one of our Jewish student groups on campus. 

Our students are the Jewish Americans in the much-discussed 2013 Pew Report. Whether at S.F. State, USF, U.C. Hastings or the other San Francisco schools we serve, they come from non-traditional backgrounds. Most have never heard of BBYO, Camp Ramah or Emanu-El. Many grew up in interfaith families. They don’t identify as Conservative, Reform or Orthodox. But they all report being “proud to be Jewish.”

We could fret about what this all means, or we can just embrace it.

We choose the latter. We meet students wherever they are on their Jewish journeys and spark in them an enduring commitment to Jewish life.

S.F. Hillel has inspired a surprising number of students to become Jewish communal professionals. Currently, our graduates work full-time at JCRC, Stanford Hillel, Diller Teen Fellows, Santa Cruz Hillel, JIMENA, USC Hillel, JCCSF and S.F. Hillel. Nurturing a desire to dedicate a career to Jewish life is a great measure of success — and an incredible return on investment.

Because we have to be adaptive and resilient in a hostile climate, our students form sophisticated, passionate connections to Israel. We send many students to Israel on Birthright, Masa and Onward programs, connecting them with internships and educational opportunities, and empowering some to make aliyah.

How do we accomplish all this?

As noted, we start by meeting students where they are. They are unlikely to chant Torah, but they crave understanding of the intentionality behind Jewish ritual and spirituality. One recent graduate posted on Facebook during her foreign travels that she was grateful S.F. Hillel taught her “my Judaism is portable, that Shabbat comes every week [and] for giving me the tools to feel at home in [any] Jewish space.”

Next, we focus on building community. Everyone associates Hillel with Friday night meals. Yes, we do that. But only a few already committed Jewish students would show up if that’s all we did. The hard work happens behind the scenes: the coffee dates, leadership development programs and intern trainings to help students reach out and connect their peers to Hillel. “Make community, not Shabbat” is our shorthand to remind ourselves we are here to create a pluralistic space not just for affiliated Jews but also the ones seeking that spark and inspiration to embark on a lifelong Jewish journey.

Finally, we think about what’s next for our students. This summer, our staff met with leaders from the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Urban Adamah, Jewish Film Institute, Keshet, The Kitchen and many more to discuss how to plug our students into “adult” Jewish life. Our biggest goal is ensuring Judaism lasts long after college.

For all our incredible success with the students we reach, we could do so much more.  Local and national Hillel data demonstrates that we are extremely understaffed for the size of our Jewish student population, and that with comparable resources, our scalable engagement model could easily triple the number of students we serve. Additionally — and perhaps unsurprisingly — our students at S.F. State report less comfort as Jews on campus compared to the national average. We will be devoting considerable energy to this problematic area this year.

Ollie Benn is the executive director of San Francisco Hillel, which serves S.F. State, USF, U.C. Hastings, UCSF, City College and all other undergraduate and graduate students of San Francisco and the North Peninsula.


Sonoma Hillel: More going on than you’d expect

If you meet a student going to college in Sonoma County, a region better known for its wine history than its Jewish history, you might be tempted to ask them what type of Jewish life on campus there might be. But if you think that student has to search far and wide at school to connect to their Jewish roots, you’d be mistaken. That’s because every Friday night, Jewish college students in Sonoma County are doing the same thing that Jews around the world are doing: welcoming Shabbat.

Shabbat dinner at Hillel of Sonoma County is the cornerstone of Jewish life on campus for the hundreds of Jewish college students in Sonoma County. Many of these students are continuing a long tradition learned from their families. For others, this might be their first Shabbat dinner. Regardless of their Jewish knowledge or experience, all are welcome to join in a service, followed by a shared meal with people who share similar backgrounds and values.

At Hillel of Sonoma County, we don’t have our own building, so we rent space in the Newman Center, a part of the Santa Rosa Catholic Archdiocese. If you use your imagination, you can picture students walking into this building on a Friday evening. The air is fragrant with the scent of challah baking. A dozen students are laughing as they try to duplicate the fancy braids a young woman casually and expertly creates on a baking tray with glistening strands of dough. Somebody is chopping vegetables for a salad, and something is bubbling on the stove.

Another group of students is moving tables and chairs from an outside storage shed across a muddy yard into the attached garage that normally serves as a chapel. Benches must be moved aside and religious art respectfully covered. All the kitchen utensils, paper goods and other items used in the kitchen come out of the shed for this weekly ritual of creating Shabbat in a space never imagined for it.

And suddenly, 40 to 60 students are gathered in this room, welcoming the Sabbath, singing Shalom Aleichem and chanting Kiddush. The students are given a warm welcome, as efforts are made to ensure that newcomers are brought into existing conversations and provocative questions are asked to spark thoughtful conversations. Sometimes there is a speaker; other times the group divides into teams and plays Jewish Jeopardy.

After dinner, groups of students clean up quickly, replace the benches and put all the paper goods, tables and chairs back in the shed, trying not to track mud in and out of their host’s property. By 10 o’clock, the residence has been returned to its intended purpose, and the students have walked back to their residence halls — perhaps with a small challah loaf of their own under their arm. Jewish life is alive and well on campus in Sonoma County.

For the past three years, our Hillel has been a guest of the Newman Center on Friday nights. Sonoma County students need a distinctively Jewish space: an inclusive, warm and welcoming spot, a place that will reach more students for decades to come, a space made sacred through Jewish rituals and learning, and where students can study, relax, congregate and laugh. As we students embark on a journey of exploration and change, Hillel of Sonoma County will continue to offer students a joyous celebratory Jewish experience, one that will impact them well past their graduation into adulthood. Yes, Jewish life is alive and well on campuses in Sonoma County, but we need to sustain it and continue to grow, and we are grateful for the support of our community.

Rabbi Stephanie Kramer is the associate rabbi at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa and the president of the board of Sonoma Hillel.