Hillel fosters Jewish life on campus

By Kate Gaertner, Jewish Light Staff

St. Louis Hillel, which is based at Washington University but provides outreach to university students at most local campuses, is one chapter in the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. Hillel International, a foundation for Jewish campus life, has branches in places as disparate as Russia, South America and Great Britain. The organization, which was founded in 1923, seeks to shape leaders of what Hillel’s executive director, Jacqueline Jackie Levey, calls “the Jewish future.”

“Our mission, broadly speaking, is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they enrich the lives of the Jewish people and the world. To engage them in Jewish life, wherever they are, and to hope that they’ll be able to use that to make a difference, no matter where they end up,” Levey said.

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St. Louis Hillel takes the form of five pillars: social justice and service, religious life, Israel, Jewish culture and education, and leadership development. According to Levey, these five pillars allow each student to truly shape a Hillel experience of his or her own.

To some students, a connection to Hillel may be forged through the Birthright Israel trips the organization sponsors; to others, it may be found in the services Hillel offers for Shabbat and the High Holidays; to others, it may take the form of social justice programming, such as Challah for Hunger, a student group that bakes Challah bread to benefit food pantries (it is unclear whether the group will be baking during the 2010-11 academic year) and Darfur, or Black Women/Jewish Women, an organization that brings together women of different backgrounds for dialogue and cultural sharing.

All Jewish students-regardless of background or denomination-are welcome to participate in Hillel activities, and this inner diversity has led its leaders to concentrate on fostering a spirit of pluralism. Encompassed in the Hillel community are a variety of different religious viewpoints, forms of practicing, backgrounds and political beliefs. An administration ago, Hillel’s mission was to bring together as many Jews as possible – “maximizing the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews,” according to campus Rabbi Andy Kastner.

Now, according to Levey, the focus is more on depth and dialogue.

“Our main principle at Hillel is to create a pluralistic community,” Levey said. “With any type of community, even in a family, it’s always going to be challenging to create a peaceful discourse about various issues. I think that’s what makes being on a college campus so amazing, so inspirational, so much fun. It’s really about being in a learning community.”

For Levey, Kastner and Hillel’s national leadership, a pluralistic community often means fostering the sort of culture where dialogue is welcome-especially for issues surrounding Israel, on which students are prone to disagree. According to Hillel’s national president, Wayne Firestone, openness is a core focus of Hillel’s mission-stemming from the philosophy of its namesake, the sage Hillel the Elder.

“Hillel was focused on the idea that there were multiple truths in any given situation. We’ve stayed very true to this principle-that it’s important to listen, to be open in any given situation,” Firestone said. “We need to be able to hear and listen to other views, other faiths, other opinions and other ways of approaching things. If we can embody that, then we can be good citizens of the campuses that we inhabit.”

And in creating this dialogue, Hillel’s leaders hope to make students think. According to Kastner, the challenge is to provide students with an experience of value and meaning-an experience through which they can learn from their faith, their culture and one another.

“It’s a very real challenge,” Kastner said. “But I’ve noticed one thing that’s very special about the Midwest-we want to get along. Not only in an ‘I’m OK, you’re OK sort of model,’ but in a generative model-that by creating contexts in environments for different ideas, different lifestyles to work together, we generate new ideas of our own identity, new appreciation and space for those who have identities that differ from ours.”

Kate Gaertner is the Joseph J Edlin Memorial Summer Intern at the Jewish Light. She is a Senior at Washington University and editor of Studenty Life.


St. Louis Hillel

Where: 6300 Forsyth Boulevard, on the campus of Washington University

Upcoming events:

• St. Louis Hillel Open House, 2-4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27 at the Hillel Building;

• Freshmen & Family Shabbat, 6-8 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Hillel Building;

• Shabbat Morning Services,

9:30-11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 28 at the Hillel Building;

• Bagel Brunch, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Aug. 28 outside Ursa’s Fireside on the South 40; • JewBQ, 5-7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29 on the Swamp on the South 40 (near dorms);

• JSU Ice Cream Social, 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 1 in the DUC Courtyard

More info: stlouishillel.org