Jewish Life on Campus
Hillel is home away from home at UMass
By Stacey Dresner
To find out whether Jewish life is thriving at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, one need only visit The Grinspoon Hillel House, home of UMass Hillel, one of the most active student groups at the university. Recognized internationally as a leader in creative campus programming, UMass Hillel is the only campus Hillel in the world to win the William Haber Award for outstanding programming six times. Of UMass’s 2,500 Jewish students, 70 percent are involved in Hillel’s programs, services and activities.
The Hillel House at UMass offers students a library, kosher kitchen and dining room, lounges and study areas, and the Max Goldberg Jewish Living and Learning Community.
“Hillel has become my home away from home, figuratively and literally, as there is room for 26 students to live at the Hillel House, something unique to our Hillel,” said student Evan Sheinhait, a Judaic Studies major.
Every Friday night, Hillel offers Reform, Conservative and Orthodox services for students, said Rabbi Saul Perlmutter, executive director of UMass Hillel for the past 39 years.
“It is not only what we offer, but how we offer it that is important,” Perlmutter explained.
“Everyone gathers together in the front lounge and we have three students standing in the front — one Reform, one Conservative and one Orthodox. Together they welcome everybody, they say the sponsors of the Shabbat dinner that will follow, they make announcements, and they lead everyone in singing a Shabbat song – ‘Yedid Nefesh.’ Then we split into the three separate services…Then we all gather downstairs for Kiddush and Shabbat dinner.
“So what’s the message? – the message is: We start as a community. Maybe we pray in different ways, but then we all come back together as a community. People are friends across the different groups. Some students don’t come for the services at all; they come for the Shabbat dinner. After dinner there are often oneg programs, the students hang out and play board games, or there is a speaker. That is what Friday night is at Hillel, it is very pluralistic, very welcoming and I am proud of the model we have. Students feel they can be who they are here.”
The Friday night services are followed by weekly Shabbat dinners – free for UMass students — that are sponsored by parents, alumni, and caring supporters in the community. The dinners regularly attract more than 100 students. Shabbat lunches are held each Saturday and like the kosher dinners on Friday nights are free, thanks to generous donations. (A kosher meal plan is also available six days a week in the Franklin Dining Hall for an additional fee.)
Every Saturday morning, Hillel’s Kehilat Hillel Ha’azinu, a Modern Orthodox group, holds services and some weeks there are Conservative services led by the Conservative group Koach. Sydney Weinberg, 20, a junior, is the new president of Koach.
“I got involved with Koach because I was raised as a Conservative Jew and was very involved in my synagogue and USY, and went to a Conservative Jewish sleep-away camp growing up. But I felt since I was studying Judaic studies maybe I should go out and see what else I could get involved with
[in terms of] Jewish activities.”
Weinberg said that she truly became involved in Hillel after going on a community service trip to Ramle, a town south of Tel Aviv, with Hillel to work with the Ethiopian Jewish community in the winter of her freshman year.
“It was such an amazing experience and all of my friends from the trip decided we would all meet up at Hillel the first Friday night of second semester for Shabbat dinner,” Weinberg said. “I went to Koach services before dinner and the moment we started, I felt like me again, I knew all of the tunes, and it was just a great feeling to be with a group of people that have similar beliefs to mine. I had found my community. That night, the president at the time came up to me after services, asked me what my name was, then told me, ‘I better be seeing more of you around here’. I was hooked.”
Evan Sheinhait is the leader of Ruach, the Reform/Reconstructionist group at UMass Hillel, which Perlmutter said has blossomed this past year.
“Ruach means spirit, which exemplifies the multifaceted creed of our group; our focus does not rely on religion only but also on building social relationships as well as tikkun olam,” Sheinhait said. “We have weekly Friday night Shabbat services that are led by students as well as joining with the other denominations for celebrations of the other holidays. We also have begun a strong social action policy and recently have sent students to Not Bread Alone, a local soup kitchen in Amherst, as well as Arbor’s assisted living home, also in Amherst. We are excited this year because we are hosting the first Reform/Reconstructionist High Holiday services ever at UMass.”
Under Perlmutter’s leadership, Hillel offers an assortment of Jewish programming, from holiday services to Torah studies like “Pasta and Parsha” on Tuesdays and Thursday Night Torah.
Also offering programming is the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), a joint program of Hillel and the Orthodox Union. Jointly funded and working in conjunction with Hillel, the JLIC was initiated by Perlmutter seven years ago.
“There were some Orthodox students who approached me asked if they could have Orthodox services at Hillel and at that point we had not had Orthodox services at Hillel,” Perlmutter recalled. “I said, ‘Of course.’ I totally believe in pluralism, that is why I work at Hillel. So they started Shabbat services and lunches, and I realized they needed more than that. I am not an Orthodox rabbi. I can support them but I can’t answer issues of Orthodox law for them and I thought they needed staff support as well.”
He wrote a proposal to the Orthodox Union and the program was founded. Today it is run by Rabbi Yosi and Sheera Eisen, who often welcome students – of all denominations – to their home for programming.
More entry points
Perlmutter has sought to bring more students to Hillel by offering a variety of other programming, including the arts. This year, Hillel started its Jewish Theatre Collective, which last April presented five performances of “The Merchant of Venice” – four of which were sold out.
“Most of the students in the play were students who had not been involved in Hillel before, which was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to offer so many different entry points doing something Jewish. Some kids were never going to come to a Friday night service…so this is another way in. And it was amazing. It is a challenging play and they did a great job.”
Also bringing kids in Hillel through the arts is Kolot, Hillel’s a cappella singing group. Kolot was the only non-African American group invited to sing at the UMass Gospel Choir’s Annual Spring Concert last April where they received a standing ovation for their performance. Kolot was one of seven UMass a cappella groups featured at Acapalooza, a concert that attracted about 750 people.
“This was a year when we not only had a strong impact on the Jewish community but an impact on the campus as a whole,” Rabbi Perlmutter says. “ We had cultural campus-wide impact, we had community service campus-wide impact and the Jewish Student Union (JSU) won the two top awards that are given to students groups on campus.”
The two “Sammie Awards” given to the UMass JSU by the UMass Center for Student Development for Recognized Student Organizations (RSO) were for Best RSO Program of the Year for “Mesiba: A Night in Tel Aviv,” attended by 800 students, and Best RSO of the Year.
The JSU receives funding and staff support from UMass Hillel.
“The two work together in several different ways because JSU is a registered student organization and we have some of our events on campus and some off campus. So we do a lot of outreach on campus,” said Michelle Pomerantz, president of JSU. “Mesiba: A Night in Tel Aviv” started off with a shuk (outdoor market) and that led into a cultural night dance type of event with students from all different cultures and all different student groups.”
UMass has more than 300 student-led clubs, so to be named the best RSO was exciting, Pomerantz said.
“We had no idea we were going to win both,” she commented. “The board members this year and everyone who worked on the project were so dedicated and put in so much time. We started planning for it the February before. It was something where the timing really worked.”
Another recognized student Organization on campus is the Student Alliance for Israel (SAFI), which also receives funding from and works closely with UMass Hillel. Last spring, SAFI hosted iConnect in the Student Union Ballroom, bringing together 15 organizations to showcase their groups and how they relate to Israel. In addition to leading Koach, Sydney Weinberg is also a member of SAFI.
“iConnect is a yearly program that has happened three times now, hosted by SAFI, and it is much like the student activities expo that happens at the beginning of every semester, but instead of all of the groups on campus, every group invited has some connection with Israel,” Weinberg explained. “We had a wide variety of clubs attend including the Bahai Club, Jewish Student Union, University Republican Club, Smith Israel Alliance, AEPhi, JStreetU, Craft Center, ZBT, University Democrats, and many more. It is an event in which every group has the opportunity to showcase their own club, while also showing that they all have a strong commonality: Israel… It is a great opportunity for people on campus to see all of these amazing groups while also seeing that there is a strong pro-Israel network on campus.”
Hillel also takes UMass students on trips to Israel annually on Birthright Israel as well as community services trips to Israel. From January to June of 2013, UMass HIllel took 160 UMass students on Birthright Israel trips. Another 20 students went on a March spring break community service trip to Israel for the Jewish National Fund.
Perlmutter said these trips are an important part of students’ college experience.
“The students use the term ‘life-changing’ and it is. For many of them it is the first time they are out of the country. For all of the Birthright kids it is the first time they have been to Israel on a group trip. They get to be in a place where Jews are in the majority, which many of them have never experienced before,” he said. “They go as a group so they are sharing it with their peers, so it is not only about the trip. It is also about when they come back to campus and want to come back to Hillel. They want to be with the friends they met on the trip and since they are all from the same campus, it makes it easy to do that. So the long-term impact on them is also terrific.”
Perlmutter is also the founder of the Ride to Provide, a fall bike ride through Amherst that raises money for UMass Hillel and its environmental and travel programs. This year’s Ride to Provide will be held on Oct. 6.
“It is obvious to anyone that walks into the building that Saul is dedicated to the students there and he cares about them and does everything he can to enrich the Jewish life and atmosphere at UMass,” Pomerantz said.
Jewish Life is strong at Clark
By Mara Dresner
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.”
Clark Winter 2012-13 Birthright Trip in Tzfat, Israel.
Clark students bake challah with Chabad of Worcester.
Clark students celebrate Yom HaAtzma’ut (Israeli
Independence Day) by giving away cupcakes on campus.