Hillel welcomes new students at retreat

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Beautiful weather made for a perfect weekend for the Into the Wild program held by St. Louis Hillel for incoming Jewish Washington University freshmen. Seventy participants took part in the program, held at Camp Wyman in Eureka, said Matt Frank, St. Louis Hillel Engagement Associate and Community Development Fellow (CDF) advisor.

The annual student-run event is planned by the CDFs to help freshmen and transfer students transition into Jewish life on their own and Jewish campus life said Frank.

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“Students come from large and small Jewish communities,” Frank said. “This program helps to welcome them into their new Jewish college community and show them the abundant sources of Jewish life experiences they can choose from on campus and in our larger St. Louis Jewish community.”

The unique program has proven a wonderful way to welcome students and provide a way for them to discover the many ways of being involved in Jewish life on campus, Frank said.

“Over the last ten years we’ve seen a real shift to meeting students where they’re at in their Jewish lives,” he said. “Programs have been much more open and accepting, which has been very beneficial. Connecting with the students is so important: even if it is just about having Jewish buddies to watch the football game with over the weekend.”

CDF Stephi Blank is a junior from Portland, Ore.

“Into the Wild is a great opportunity for students,” Blank said. “The sole purpose of the program is for them to meet other Jewish students and learn about ways they can be involved in the Jewish community.”

The weekend begins with ice breakers for the whole group, which is then split into smaller base groups of eight to twelve freshmen with CDF leaders. Activities are planned to help the smaller group members get to know each other.

CDF Alex Friedman, a junior from Columbia, S.C. wrote the Boundary Breaker program for the base groups with Blank. They started with an exercise based on the Post Secret Postcard Project to help form bonds and trust between the students.

“We developed a series of questions, each leading to more in-depth questions, to help students articulate their connections with Judaism, Israel and being Jewish in college,” Friedman said. “We wanted to help students get to know each other in a more intimate way, without putting people on the spot or making them feel uncomfortable.”

The smaller base groups continue weekly programming after the Into the Wild weekend.

“We meet every other week as a base group,” Friedman said. “The alternate weeks we offer dessert Sundays which are open to all Jewish freshmen. Students who did not attend Into the Wild are still welcome to join a base group.”

Another traditional highlight of the weekend is the Bear Mitzvah.

“We do a Bar/Bar Mitzvah-esque party, just to let loose,” Blank said. “This year it was perfect, virtually everyone was dancing.”

There is also a Bear Mitzvah held in the spring for all underclassmen living in the dorms on the South 40. The event is a culminating project after a semester of training for the incoming CDFs who serve from January through May of the following year. It offers the group a chance to experience planning a large scale program and all the logistics it entails.

Into the Wild participants also have the opportunity to explore Jewish life on campus by talking with representatives of the more than 20 Jewish groups on campus at the Jewish activities fair.

One of the ways to measure the success of the program is through the current CDFs: all of them participated in Into the Wild when they were freshmen.

“Our CDFs are just as excited as the freshmen,” Friedman said. “The group is very passionate. There is so much energy.”

Blank and Friedman said this year was different than other years because of everyone’s enthusiasm.

“I have never seen such a positive response to Into the Wild,” Blank said.

The one-on-one connection with the CDF makes the difference said Friedman.

“Everywhere I looked I saw CDFs visiting with students and creating community,” Friedman said. “The program enriches their experience as much as the freshmen and it extends throughout the year