three women and one man in a zoom meeting
From top left: Sheila Katz, Ocean Noah, Danielle Natelson and Manny Yekutiel. (Photo/Screenshot)

To reach students, S.F. Hillel fundraiser pours a coffee analogy

It’s been a hectic year for Bay Area Jewish college students.

San Francisco Hillel, which serves hundreds of students on multiple campuses, has stepped up by offering virtual Shabbat programs and other events for stuck-at-home students yearning for connection during the pandemic.

And in the middle all the pandemic mishegas, San Francisco State University was caught up in a drama in which Palestinian hijacker and activist Leila Khaled was invited virtually not once but twice to the university. (Both times, tech companies blocked the event from happening.)

“Here we are a year later, and believe me, what a year it’s been,” Rick Lenat, S.F. Hillel’s board president, said last week at the organization’s fundraiser, “Activate 2021,” which raised $20,000, according to S.F. Hillel executive director Rachel Nilson Ralston.

“Our students and dedicated staff and team have navigated unprecedented obstacles,” Lenat added. “They’ve [been] confronted by the heaviness of grief and isolation … the stress of political division and terrorist guest lecturers, and the exhaustion of Zoom fatigue and remote learning.”

The virtual event — which raised money via tickets that ranged from $18 to students to $180 for families to $1,800 for “investors” — didn’t just dwell on the challenges of the past 13 months. It also featured a panel discussion that looked ahead to the next generation of Jewish college students, their approaches to Judaism and the openness of the community to hear new ideas.

Ocean Noah, a senior at SFSU and president of its Hillel chapter (and a former J. development assistant), asked questions of a handful of Jewish leaders from around the country. They included National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz, Hillel International’s Springboard Fellowship director Danielle Natelson and San Francisco business owner Manny Yekutiel.

The panelists all agreed on one thing: Jewish students don’t like black coffee. Well, sort of.

“Never in my experience of taking a student to Starbucks did they ever order a black coffee,” Katz said.

But her anecdote went deeper than that. “I think this is actually a great analogy, because younger people crave nuance and customization,” she said. “I see the same thing in adjustments we have to make, particularly in the Israel space. Young people don’t like the terms pro-Israel or anti-Israel. It’s like ordering a black coffee.”

Natelson agreed, stating, “The same way that I think there are folks who drink from Starbucks and also go to a local, hometown coffeehouse, the same is happening in our Jewish world. People in our generation are finding connection to smaller, niche, identity-based Jewish experiences. And they are showing up to S.F. Hillel and synagogue when those spaces have added coconut milk.”

Yekutiel, who owns and operates the community-focused café and events space Manny’s in San Francisco, offered a similar view on the ways new generations of Jews are engaging with their faith.

“I’m really excited about how younger Jews and Jews in their middle ages are weaving their Judaism into their lives in a way that feels authentic and that they are proud of,” he said. “I’m thinking of Milk and Honey at Burning Man,” referring to a Shabbat service at the annual festival in the Nevada desert.

S.F. Hillel is part of a network of some 500 Hillels around the world, the largest such Jewish organization for college students, which aims to help them “find community, create Jewish connections and build leadership skills.”

Over the past 13 months, S.F. Hillel — which in addition to S.F. State serves USF, UC Hastings, UCSF, Golden Gate University and other local campuses — has been hosting a slate of virtual events, including “Game Show Shabbat,” “Sweatpants Shabbat” and “Virtual Shabbat Carnival.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.