A changed landscape, approach for St. Louis Hillel

The St. Louis Hillel building as it looks today; an addition to the left of the building, which housed an auditorium, lobby, kitchen and offices, was torn down last year.

Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Jacqueline Ulin Levey believes college organizations such as Hillel have to be proactive when it comes to reaching out and engaging students. That’s why the Jewish organization is now meeting students at places on campus where they hang out, including coffeehouses and libraries.

“We are turning to an engagement program, where we are moving out of the institutional structure and going to where students work and play,” said Levey, president and CEO of St. Louis Hillel at Washington University.

This approach sounds right on, said Max Wenneker, a senior business major from Newton, Mass., who grew up in the Reform movement and has had little involvement with Judaism on campus.

“Given the makeup of the student body, it makes more sense now to go to the students than to have the students come to them,” said Wenneker.

Rachel Binstock, a junior anthropology major from Evanston, Ill., generally agrees. She attended Jewish day school, still keeps kosher and has found that the large Jewish student population at Washington U. makes her feel very much at home.

Not only is she comfortable with her interpretation of Judaism in the campus setting, she is aware that “these years are pretty formative as far as an outlook on the world….I’m on a journey.”

To that end, she has developed a close spiritual relationship with Rabbi Andy Kastner, the point man in Hillel’s effort to reach students where they are.

“Rabbi Andy has done a really good job of networking,” said Binstock, who teaches Sunday school at Central Reform Congregation. “He makes students feel really welcome. He never makes you feel bad about not going” to services.

Last year, Hillel sold an acre immediately east of its main building at 6300 Forsyth Boulevard to the Forsyth School next door. On that land was an addition built in 1966 that had an auditorium, lobby, kitchen and offices. The addition has been torn down, leaving the older brick structure, also on an acre. The sale price was not released.

The change in the physical presence of Hillel in St. Louis mirrors a trend among Hillel branches on other campuses across the country. Many are restructuring efforts to find and engage students where they are rather than expect them to come to a building dedicated to the details of Judaism, such as Shabbat, High Holy Days worship or eating kosher meals together. Levey referred particularly to Cornell, Northwestern, Chicago, Tufts, Emory and Penn as universities where the situations are similar to the one in which the Hillel here finds itself.

Levey said she does not know how many Jewish undergraduates attend Washington University, though the rule of thumb long has been one-third.

A graduate of the university herself, as well as of its law school, Levey estimates the Jewish undergraduate population is between 1,200 and 1,500. This number does not include students in the various graduate and professional schools, such as law, medicine, business and social work, among others. Nor does it include faculty.

Another several hundred Jewish students on other local campuses such as St. Louis University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Webster University and Maryville University, also are welcome to use Hillel’s services, Levey said.

The far-flung nature of the area’s Jewish student population beyond the Washington University campus only increases the challenge Levey and the Hillel staff and volunteers must meet if they are to serve those students who may be far from home and searching for suitable ways to worship and have a social life.

Kastner, 32, is the Silk Foundation rabbi at St. Louis Hillel. He grew up in Cleveland in the Reform tradition, attended public schools, graduated from Indiana University with a degree in religious and Jewish studies. He received his rabbinical training at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School (http://www.yctorah.org/) in Riverdale, N.Y. He describes himself as open Orthodox. The school calls itself Modern Orthodox.

Kastner has been at the Hillel here about a year and a half. He was hired from a pool of more than 50 applicants from the United States and Israel. He seems to be very busy meeting with students and making his presence known around the Washington University campus.

Although he has the background and training to help students 10 or more years younger connect or reconnect with Judaism, Kastner said many Jewish students feel so safe and comfortable at Washington University that they may take their situation for granted.

This is a point on which he and Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus, who also hosts Friday night Shabbat dinners, agree.

“Many people here on campus don’t even know what the term anti-Semitism means,” said Novack, a familiar face on the Washington University campus for a decade. Therefore, they may not feel the need to take the steps to observe Judaism, much less affiliate with a congregation.

Nonetheless, he said, “business is booming. We have more than 100 participants every Shabbat.”

Novack noted that Judaism long has been a “religion of the home,” so it’s only natural that both he and Kastner get out on campus and where students live to guide and teach them about Judaism.

Add to that the fact that many students in their late teens and early 20s are wired into their own social networks, and Kastner has a lot of work to do to reach those Jewish students.

“We are literally out there on the beat. It’s all relationship based,” said Kastner, referring to his efforts to meet with students, to get his name into those social networks and to make students aware of ways they can meet everyday situations and challenges in a uniquely Jewish way.

“I do a lot listening. It’s a total listening campaign,” he said. “Then it grows organically. I meet with one person, and they want to introduce me to their friends.”

Sometimes that may mean becoming involved in some kind of social action or showing students how they can have a Shabbat meal in their dorm suites or apartments.

The emphasis today is not on having students show up for Shabbat or High Holy Day services at the Hillel building, as was long the practice, but to show them how they can learn about and apply Judaism where they are in their daily lives, Levey and Kastner said in separate interviews.

Hillel will continue to sponsor those kinds of services at sites on campus, Levey said, and may eventually build an addition on the back of the structure that still stands on Forsyth. But for the foreseeable future, Hillel will be actively seeking out Jewish students, providing kosher meals, kits called Shabbat in a Box that include challah, candles and grape juice and services in various campus sites.

Efforts to reach today’s Jewish students aren’t exclusively Hillel’s, as Novack’s presence illustrates. The Chabad on Campus house just west of the Danforth Campus at 7018 Forsyth welcomes and informs students in many practices and details of the Orthodox tradition.

Neither Levey, Kastner nor Novack see that Hillel and Chabad are in competition for the souls of Jewish students, though observers might think that is the case.

“There’s a perception there’s competition,” Levey said. “We have a number who go back and forth.”

Added Kastner: “We work to respect each other’s institutional identities. At the end of the day, we are really complimentary organizations when we are at our best.”