Two New Jersey university students are among the 24 members of the inaugural Hillel International Student Cabinet. The aim of its formation, say leaders, is to find ways to better serve students of diverse backgrounds and ideologies, and to create a means for students to have access to their peers.
As cabinet members, Evan Gottesman, a rising senior at Rutgers, and Mikhael Smits, a rising junior at Princeton, attended the group’s first meeting, held April 10-11 in Washington. The students, who will meet twice yearly and stay in contact in the interim through video communication, come from the United States, Canada, Israel, South America, and Europe.
There are 560 Hillel chapters at colleges and universities internationally, serving approximately 400,000 students.
“The cabinet will ensure that the concerns of Jewish students are shared with Hillel’s leadership and the broader Jewish community,” said Sheila Katz, Hillel International’s vice president for social entrepreneurship, in a phone conversation from its Washington offices.
Katz, herself a NJ native who grew up in Willingboro, said cabinet members were selected from among 100 applicants recommended by staff and peers.
“We estimated that more than 2,000 students were consulted in the course of creating the cabinet through an on-line survey,” said Katz. “The selected group of 24 represents the full spectrum of Jewish student life, with students of color, students with disabilities, students from interfaith families, students who identify as LGBTQ, and students from an array of schools and areas of study.”
Gottesman, an East Brunswick resident majoring in political science and history, was Rutgers Hillel’s Israel cochair this school year.
Gottesman said he wanted to join the cabinet “to make sure Jewish students are aware of Hillel International’s position as the umbrella organization that provides assistance and support to Jewish students around the world. I think students are aware of Hillel, but not aware of all its resources. The priority of Hillel International is to help Jewish students. I was very impressed by all its staff and all the student voices in the cabinet.”
Smits, who last year served on the board of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton, is studying politics. A native of Strasbourg, France, his family now lives in Newton, Mass.
“I saw this inaugural student cabinet as an opportunity to bring the advocacy work I’ve done on a more local level to the international level,” said Smits, “and to collaborate with other student leaders to make an impact on our campus and beyond.”
The April gathering, he said, was “the beginning of a larger conversation about bigger issues facing Jewish students on campuses today and ways to address student issues more effectively on campuses scattered around the world.”
Smits said cabinet members discussed anti-Semitism, Israel, and a host of other issues at the meeting.
“We have to understand that the issues facing a small liberal arts suburban campus in the U.S. may not be the same as those facing one in Uruguay,” said Smits, who is also president of the Princeton chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society, which promotes debate on basic principles and contemporary issues, and is an undergraduate fellow of the university’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
Smits said he’s “made it a big part of my life on campus to speak up so all students of all political persuasions and all backgrounds have a voice. That means sometimes I’ve defended positions I don’t agree with or support.”
One focus of his Hillel involvement, Smits said, “is to create an atmosphere where Jewish students of all backgrounds are comfortable living a Jewish life and feel comfortable at Hillel activities and at Hillel facilities. It’s going to be a difficult conversation, but one of the big reasons I signed up for this.”
Gottesman said learning about other cabinet members’ “diversity of experiences” and values provided a good framework for future encounters.
“Some were interested in community outreach,” said Gottesman, an area he said he definitely wants to focus on himself. “Some were more interested in Israel issues. We divided ourselves into different subgroups and committees based on our interests.”
Gottesman is president of the Rutgers University Association of International Relations and a fellow of the Lloyd C. Gardner Program in Leadership and Social Policy. “I’m interested in hearing experiences from other campuses and strategies that have worked on campuses where the total number of Jewish students is less than we get at one Rutgers Hillel event,” he said.
“Jewish life on a campus in the Jewish state is also different from Jewish life in the United States, and I hope to take back some of their experiences and apply them as a member of the student board at Rutgers Hillel.”