WORCESTER – Clark University may be small but its Jewish soul is big – and growing.
Hillel Director David Coyne estimates that out of 2,200 undergrads, about 350 to 400 identify as Jewish.
“The Jewish community is small and well-resourced. … The perception on campus is that the Jewish population is much larger than it actually is,” he said. “Hillel is the largest membership group on campus. We are recognized as the most active, visible and collaborative student organization … It’s a good, strong, active community.”
In a typical week, Hillel sponsors seven or eight programs, including as many as three Erev Shabbat services and a kosher Shabbat dinner, as well as activities, including Havdallah, Torah study, holiday celebrations and social activities, such as bowling.
The Friday night dinners are one of the most popular events, attracting as many as 40 to 50 students.
“I began involvement in Hillel first semester, freshman year. I started as a co-chair of the Israel and Zionism committee, then became the secretary, and now I am the president!” said Jessica Shepro ’15, a psychology major/education minor from Holden, Mass. “Yes, Hillel is a Jewish organization, but it is a way to socialize with people who have similar interests and backgrounds. Hillel is a great way to meet friends and feel at home even when you are away.”
She said that one creative way Hillel attracts students is through the use of bagels.
“Midnight bagel brunches attract many students, both consistent Hillel goers — the regulars — and … those who might not know anything about Hillel, as we get about 18 dozen bagels and give them out for free,” she said.
Coyne, who is in his 16th year at Clark, said that while Hillel has always been active on campus, the past year was a “breakthrough year.”
That included the addition of a second full time staff person, Shira Moskovitz, the Israel Engagement Coordinator, a position funded by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation.
“I think we’re the smallest school with two year-round Hillel staff people,” said Coyne.
Another huge change this fall will be the addition of a kosher dining option at no extra charge to the student’s meal plan. The plan will be available in the regular dining hall, offering kosher meat and parve options, under the supervision of Vaad Ha’ir.
“That’s brand-new this fall,” said Coyne. “It will be for lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. It will be a continuous meal plan. … Students who choose this meal plan will be in the same cafeteria with their friends.”
Food will be served on disposable, compostable plates.
“That way, you don’t have to worry about if a plate touches something that’s not kosher,” said Coyne. “That’s a big deal.”
He noted that “members of the public can come as cash customers. They can come in and eat as much as they want,” adding that there are currently no kosher restaurants in Worcester.
The addition of a kosher dining option will help make the school more competitive.
“We’ve worked for years for this, … to be able to appeal to a wide spectrum of Jewish students,” said Bernie Rotman, a long-time Hillel supporter and Hillel Advisory Council Board Chair. “I think that everyone has seen how important the college years are as formative years for young Jewish adults. This is a wonderful opportunity we have here at Clark. It’s an attractive institution for a lot of different reasons.”
Rotman is the liaison between Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.
“All of the things that make a complete offering to a wide spectrum of Jewish students are now coming together. … We’ve been kind of late to the game; we’ve been late to the party. Now, we’re geared up to have a fabulous year ahead,” said Rotman. “We’ve seen it in its infancy. Now that it’s reaching maturity like this is very exciting.”
Shepro agreed. “Overall, Jewish life at Clark is extremely comprehensive, and is making improvements every day. With our new kosher kitchen, we will be attracting a more observant group of students to our campus, and we are excited to see how they can help us shape Hillel.”
Clark’s Hillel is fully supported by The Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts. “Hillel is part of the continuum of one’s Jewish journey. Supporting all aspects of Jewish life is what Federation stands for,” explained Executive Director Howard Borer, adding that “bringing young Jews thirsting for knowledge and community injects vibrancy into our community every year.”
“Many of our Hillel students work and volunteer at our area Hebrew schools, Jewish students on campus are the frontlines for Israel advocacy. And through Clark, world-renowned speakers and educators are brought to our community,” he said.
There are plenty of opportunities for Jewish life on campus and off.
“We have study abroad at the University of Haifa, as a Clark-sponsored program, for a semester or full year,” said Coyne. Studies may include psychology or conflict resolution. “Everyone can take classes in English or Hebrew. Students live … with a mix of Israelis and international students. They’re really immersed in the experience.”
Clark offers a concentration in Jewish Studies. Dr. Everett Fox is director of the Jewish Studies program and is the Allen M. Glick Chair in Judaic and Biblical Studies. Fox is perhaps best known for his translation of the Chumash (“The Five Books of Moses”) from Shocken Books.
Coyne said that there are 20 classes offered in Judaic Studies.
The university is also home to the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Featuring both an undergraduate program and a landmark doctoral program, the Strassler Center is the first and only institute of its kind. Since it was established in 1998, it has gained international standing as the sole program to train students for Ph.D. degrees in Holocaust History and Genocide Studies. Dr. Debórah Dwork is the Rose Professor of Holocaust History and the director of the Strassler Center. Dwork, one of the first historians to study the Holocaust and to collect oral histories from Holocaust survivors, uses a variety of sources, including government and philanthropic agency archives, newspapers, letters, memoirs and interviews, to understand the causes and impacts of the Holocaust and other genocides of the twentieth century.
“The Ph.D. program in Holocaust studies is unique in the world,” said Coyne. “Anyone who is doing anything, whether it is a breakthrough program, a book or a film on the Holocaust or genocide brings it here. Our future professors, museum curators and documentarians study here.”
“With the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies as well as classes in Jewish Studies and Hebrew, there is no lack of Jewish education to be had at Clark,” added Shepro.
Federation’s Young Emissaries are also at home on the Clark campus.
“They have a weekly presence on campus,” said Coyne. “It’s very fun for them [the students] to get to know Israelis their own age. They’ve definitely built some relationships and made some friendships.”
The university has started to have a strong presence in the Birthright Israel program as well, thanks to funding from the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation.
“We were very fortunate to have [their] financial support,” said Coyne. He said that between students from Clark and other Worcester schools, they had a full bus on the program. Previously, Clark students would be put on other buses from other groups where there was space.
“There’s already been an impact on Israel programming on campus and engagement with Israel beyond Birthright. We have 5 to 10 students in Israel for the summer, studying or volunteering,” said Coyne.
Advocacy is also big on campus, with two groups: Clarkies Helping and Advocating for Israel (CHAI) and J Street U (the college affiliate of the national J Street organization).
Spring break this year featured a collaborative interfaith social justice program that included community service.
Coyne said that they “have a great partner in the university. The admissions office works with us. The president [David Angel] works with us and is a real ally. He is very forthcoming in his support for our endeavors. … He totally gets what we’re trying to do.”
Added Coyne, “We’re doing really, really well. Jewish life here is strong.”