National Hillel conference draws hundreds to St. Louis

Students from around the world join together in singing a traditional melody to welcome Shabbat at Hillel’s Engagement Institute, a training conference held for the second year at Washington University of St. Louis. Photo: Jonathan Pollack

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As he carefully braids challah in a reserved room on the Washington University campus, David Orfahli of Brooklyn College smiled when asked what he thought of St. Louis.

“The weather is nothing like New York,” replied the 20-year-old psychology major noting the triple-digit temperatures and stifling humidity outside. “But the sessions I’ve gone through have really helped us to evolve into better people and allowed us to engage different people and activities. We have a much better understanding of how to go about that.”

Indeed, the sweaty conditions didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the 400 to 500 students from Hillels around the country. They joined about 400 professionals from the Jewish campus group who gathered in St. Louis for the organization’s annual conference. It was the second consecutive year the week-long event has been hosted on the historic campus.

“We’re really privileged at Washington University to have such wonderful kosher dining options and amenities and we’re able to host so many students at any one particular time,” said Jacqueline Levey, president of the local Hillel. “We’re one of the few places in the country campuswise that can accommodate 700 people for kosher dining and do it well.”

It was also the second year the event has combined the staff and student conferences by running them concurrently. Formerly, the two groups held separate get togethers at different times of the year.

Hillel used this year’s conference to introduce initiatives it was launching on the Israel front. These include Talk Israel, a program that will put tents on 20 selected campuses across the nation designed to promote dialogue and respectful discussion over Mideast issues.

Sharon Ashley, head of the recently formed Center for Israel Engagement which operates under Hillel’s auspices, said the effort was especially important in light of an expected push for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations this fall.

“The purpose of the tent is to grapple with the challenges that Israel is facing and that will play out on college campuses,” she said. “This is not a one-off event. This is hopefully something that can be replicated in the spring.”

She said that the tents, set to go up for a full day sometime late next month, might involve a video linkup with speakers as well as other common resources but that each campus would decide the crux of the tent’s activities for themselves. A few campuses that did not have tents are also expected to participate.

Washington University has applied to be one of the 20 tented campuses but the selections have not yet been made.

A former journalist and longtime resident of Israel herself, Ashley said she hoped tent visitors would come away with a sense that the Jewish State was more than just the conflict. Other than the existence of Israel itself, she said any issue was up for queries, debate and discussion. Opinions could be offered freely as long as the bounds of civility were observed.

“You are welcome in this tent to ask questions but you can’t have all the answers,” she said.

Early in the conference, staffers were able to listen to the plenary address by Wayne Firestone, the organization’s national president who dedicated a part of his speech to the Talk Israel initiative.

“The tent has got flaps but at the same time it’s open,” he said. “It’s open in the sense that we want to be open and inviting to students that want to engage in conversations about Israel that we are so passionate about and we refuse to allow ourselves to be marginalized and polarized by those on the edges and outside the tent.”

Firestone told his audience that Hillel was among the first to recognize the power of social media and had seen a true shift in thinking about a changing community that still struggled with issues of involvement in Jewish life.

“Instead of merely counting tuchuses and thinking about affiliation in very narrow terms, we made a significant leap in saying that meaningful Jewish experiences were something that could be nurtured but ultimately had to be owned by students themselves,” he said. “We needed to begin that process with young adults, nurturing and teaching them in this direction but giving them the self-confidence so that when they leave college, they have the ability to create an enduring commitment to Jewish life.”

Firestone said that engagement models were increasingly bottom-up rather than top down, focusing on students not as passive consumers but as active “prosumers” who bring content and meaning to the interaction.

Interviewed later, Firestone said Hillel was succeeding in its attempt to “demystify” social networks and new models of interaction.

“Last year, I think it was fair to say people were struggling,” he said. “I don’t want to say there was opposition but there was tension over using the methodologies we’re talking about whereas this year, I think people had a level of comfort so we’re able to do more.”

Rob Goldberg, a former director of the local Hillel who now serves as the national organization’s vice-president of campus development, said he was happy to be returning to his old stomping grounds.

“What’s interesting is that since we were here last year, we know the lay of the land,” he said. “We know what didn’t work last year and have made some really important tweaks to make people more comfortable.”

Aaron Weil, another returning St. Louisan who now heads the Pittsburgh Hillel, said he thought it was valuable to be able to confer with others in this way.

“It gives colleagues the opportunity to connect with one another,” said Weil, a Parkway North graduate who was being honored with Hillel’s Exemplar of Excellence Award. “One of the challenges of Hillel is that because we are so spread out around the world, it can be easy to get stuck in a silo mentality where all you know is what you see and experience on a day-to-day basis.”

Students also seemed satisfied by their experiences. Desiree Soleymani, a 21-year-old psychology major from UCLA said she felt refreshed by the event and ready to return to her campus and accomplish new objectives.

“I feel like the staff has taken the opportunity to get to know us and ask us questions as students,” she said. “It’s nice to feel valued and like my opinions matter.”

Mia Jacobs, 20, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, said she enjoyed the part of Firestone’s address in which he called Hillel the Facebook of the Jewish people.

“I thought that was an incredible line,” said Jacobs who is double majoring in communications and religious studies. “Then when he talked about learning each individual student’s story I thought that was great too.”

Back at the challah-making table, Arielle Weil, a 19-year-old art student at Elon University in North Carolina, said the conference allowed her to understand the best ways to interact with the few Jewish students on her small campus.

“We’re learning new techniques to reach out to them initially at the beginning of the school year as well as to have more conversations that build relationships, not just to get them to come to Hillel but to get them to feel more comfortable at the university itself,” she said.