Decades might have separated them in age, but as students from Rutgers University described the priorities of their Hillel, they struck chord after chord of agreement with the seniors in the audience at the JCC of Middlesex County, in Edison.
Led by Rabbi Esther Reed, senior associate director of Rutgers Hillel, and the organization’s Student Board president, senior Alex Hamilton, they discussed how the different denominations come together; how they express support for Israel in the face of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement on campus; their engagement in outreach to other groups, and the thing that brings them together most often — food!
“Food does seem to be very important to Jews,” Reed acknowledged with a laugh shared by both groups. The seniors listened, nodding in approval, to her description of the free Shabbat dinners and lunches offered by Hillel, which are perhaps the most important way the organization brings together students from all denominations, providing something of a home-away-from-home. With a Jewish population at the university in New Brunswick of around 6,400 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students, the Shabbat meals attract around 150 students each week.
Also in the Hillel contingent were sophomore Gilana Levavi and junior Jacob Holdowsky. The idea for the get-together came from someone who bridges the two communities, Lincoln Richman. He is currently completing a graduate certificate in Jewish studies and a master’s degree in social work at Rutgers, and in that capacity has been serving as an intern at the JCC. When he graduates in May, he will become program manager there.
Holdowsky is the Hillel’s community service cochair. Among other activities, the Hillel students make weekly visits to patients and their families in local hospitals. They have also packed dozens of mishloah manot, Purim gift packages, for seniors in the community. Those in the audience at the JCC received them, too — each one with a hand-drawn cartoon or decorative design.
For Thelma Purdy, who helps facilitate the JCC’s Senior Learning Throughout Life program, it was a particularly special day. Gilana is her granddaughter, and it was clear how close they are. Purdy, a former journalist, also organizes cultural events for her synagogue, Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark; her granddaughter has followed in those footsteps, serving as education cochair for the Rutgers Hillel.
Gilana told the audience about her work with Shalom/Salaam, an organization that brings together Muslim and Jewish students. “It has been a great opportunity for us to get to know people who are different from us,” she said.
In January, the Rutgers Hillel students took part in a “trialogue” with Catholics and Muslims.
When it comes to those more interested in antagonism than cooperation, Hamilton said, the Hillel students have been “very active and very strategic in how we combat anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment.” One of the things they don’t do, he said, is write argumentative articles in the campus paper, the Daily Targum. “We don’t want to get into an op-ed war. It just infuriates the campus.” Instead, for example, when the Students for Justice in Palestine organized anti-Israel Apartheid Week activities, they held a celebration of Israeli culture.
The Hillel is largely dependent on donations. With its cultural, service, educational, and Israel engagement programs, there are many different options offered to those interested in sponsoring activities.
The rabbi explained that one of its largest expenses has been the weekly communal meals and having to pay to rent space for them. For the past few years, the Hillel — the largest in the United States — has had to make do with a small, two-story house, but a new structure, the Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House, is under construction and is due to open this summer. The $18 million building on College Avenue will have ample kosher dining space, a library, areas for study and worship, and a rooftop Holocaust memorial garden.