New Hillel branch launches at Maryville University

Maryville University

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

For the first time, Jewish students in St. Louis will be served by more than one Hillel — with a new branch opening at Maryville University. 

Erin Schreiber will serve as director of the Hillel at Maryville. She said becoming an official part of the Hillel network gives the Maryville group “international reach” in programming and connecting with other professionals. 

“On a programmatic and organizational level it gives us access and makes us a part of all of those other Hillels so that we can compare notes and find great opportunities that worked on one campus that could be exciting here.”

While the Hillel name is new to Maryville, the group that will assume it has been around for some time. Founded five years ago as the Jewish Student Union, the organization developed an interest in reconstituting as an arm of Hillel, an idea Schreiber said the national leadership was receptive to.

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“They were really very impressed and said, ‘You are really ahead of where others are at,’” she recalled.

Schreiber, who will be the sole paid staffer for the new group, has been working on campus as a Jewish program facilitator since 2012 thanks to funding from the Kranzberg Family Foundation.

“There has always been a decent number of Jewish faculty and staff,” she said. “Our student numbers have also grown. The sense of community was very strong. It’s a university where everyone knows everyone.”

As with other Hillels around the nation, Schreiber said the non-denominational organization will not be membership-based.

She said there were no firm figures on the number of Jews on Maryville’s West County campus, which has nearly 6,000 students total, however she feels there is a desire for the organization. 

She said that events put on by the group last year were often attended by more than 100 students — a number that includes non-Jewish attendees.

The group will not have a campus rabbi. However, Schreiber said it has partnerships with clergy and congregations from around the area who can provide assistance, including Rabbi Jordan Gerson of the longstanding St. Louis Hillel, located at Washington University.

Gerson, who arrived to assume his duties last autumn, said he was happy to collaborate with the new organization.

“We’re so excited to welcome Maryville Hillel into our global Hillel family and we think it is really a great advancement for the students and the Jewish community at Maryville University,” he said. “It will help us to better reach the Jewish student population of the area’s campuses.”

Schreiber, who previously worked at St. Louis Hillel, said the two groups are separate, but are “sister organizations” which will partner to help serve the area’s Jewish population. She said she hopes the new label would make it easier for students to get involved with the Maryville Judaic community.

“The Hillel brand is kind of the good housekeeping seal of approval as far as Jewish groups go on college campuses,” she said. “It will help people find us even though we’ve already been there.”

She said that having more than one Hillel was a big step forward for the community.

“I think that opens the doors to students being served in the best way possible, because each of the campuses are very distinct,” she said. “The Jewish community at Wash U, which is excellent, is a very different community than Maryville or UMSL or Fontbonne. I think we’ll be able to serve students in a more precise way.”

Other campuses do have outgrowths of Jewish life. While the University of Missouri-St. Louis doesn’t have a Hillel chapter, Drs. Susan Feigenbaum and Jay Pepose announced earlier this year that they were earmarking $100,000 toward the creation of a new House for Jewish Life. The plan envisions a facility which could be utilized by Jewish organizations in the area, including Hillel and Chabad on Campus.

The UMSL campus does have a recognized Jewish Student Association, as does St. Louis University. Webster University lists a “Jewish Student Council” known as Tribe. 

Schreiber said that some longstanding programs of the Maryville Jewish Student Union will continue under the new name, including culinary events like its chocolate seder and a “welcome back Havdalah” when classes resume. The group also does an annual Holocaust commemoration event.

She said the new Hillel, which was officially recognized late last month, will depend on a committee of about 10 faculty and staff to help coordinate activities.

“They have been very active in this entire process and luckily we’ll be able to continue to lean on them,” Schreiber said.

Sophomore Arin Simon, the first president of the newly minted Hillel, said that she is looking forward to assuming her new duties. She said it has been difficult to maintain consistent attendance for some Judaic events in the past and she hopes to remedy that this year. 

The 19-year-old elementary education major said that the other schools she considered had campus Hillels and she’s glad Maryville can now offer one also so that individuals can experience more programming and events.

“I’d like to see Jewish students from other small campuses come as well,” she said.