The first-ever Passover seder
at Westminster College, 2011.
Recognizing that to increase the number of Jewish students on campus it is no longer sufficient to host a seder, provide occasional dinners on Friday night, and/or retain a part-time rabbi to teach a few courses and serve as a campus resource, many schools are adding majors in Jewish Studies, building Hillel centers, and increasing food service meals that meet Jewish dietary requirements.
In a spring 2011 survey, colleges, high school counselors, and higher education college consultants across the U.S. were asked to help identify largely overlooked schools that have recently “gone the extra mile” to make their campuses more attractive to Jewish students. Here are some top picks:
Elon University (NC)
The growth in the Jewish population at Elon University, in the town of Elon, was featured in the RJ Insider’s Guide to College Life in 2008, when nearly 4% of the freshman class was Jewish. The surge has continued; today, entering Jewish students constitute 7%. The university has committed to turning over a house on campus to serve as the Hillel center effective 2012, has hired its first rabbinic faculty member in Religious Studies, is offering a course in Modern Hebrew, is developing a Jewish Studies minor, and has established a study abroad program at Haifa University.
Before last Passover, the Hillel campus director and the special assistant to the president sent out a joint “Support during Passover” memo to the predominantly non-Jewish faculty and staff explaining that no wheat or rice products would be eaten by Jewish students; that free kosher-for-Passover lunches at the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life would be available on each day of Passover; that tickets for the campus-wide seder were available for purchase (and students in Global Studies classes were encouraged to attend as a cultural event). The letter closed with, “We greatly appreciate your continued efforts to make Elon a welcoming environment for all.”
Davidson College (NC)
As is true of many Christian-affiliated colleges, Davidson is striving to meet the needs of Jewish students. Rabbi Michael Shields, the spiritual leader of the URJ’s Lake Norman Jewish Congregation in Davidson, North Carolina, is also adjunct Jewish chaplain at the college, creating a special bond between these two Jewish communities. The congregation’s religious school and adult education classes are held on the Davidson campus on Sundays; Davidson students teach in the religious school; and once a month the congregation holds its Shabbat services on campus. About 80 students are active, regular participants, up from 30 five years ago; and whereas Shabbat dinner used to be served only on Parents’ Weekend, now 100 students enjoy Hillel dinners weekly.
Michigan State University (MI)
A decade-long surge of Jewish students at Michigan State—there are now 3,500 on campus—coincides with the new dynamic Lester & Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center. Open 24/7, it houses a plethora of activities, from monthly Sunday brunches to the annual “Sparty’s Bar Mitzvah Party.” (The Spartan is the MSU mascot.) Students lead separate Reform and Conservative Shabbat services, followed by a free kosher Shabbat dinner. Hillel has separate meat and dairy kitchens, and the East Lansing-based university now provides a kosher Mon.–Thurs. dinner meal option.
U. of British Columbia (Vancouver)
In October 2011, a 15,000-square-foot Hillel house will be dedicated at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, one of the strongest and most active Jewish communities in North America. Located in the heart of the campus, across from the university student union, the building will house a dining hall for 250 with a kosher kitchen and a constant supply of free hot drinks, a Jewish library, and a rooftop deck.
At this largely international campus, where the ratio of Jewish to Palestinian students is 5:1, Hillel students advocate for Israel at every opportunity, including their Wednesday $5.00-a-plate lunch heaped with Israeli food, which is very popular with both Jewish and non-Jewish students and faculty.
University of Puget Sound (WA)
UPS, in Tacoma, now has a part-time Jewish chaplain and offers a limited kosher meal option in partnership with Nosh-A-Way catering. The Jewish Student Organization has aligned itself with Hillel’s SOREF initiative for campuses with smaller Jewish populations. The predominantly Reform student body holds weekly Shabbat services, and many of the undergrads attend High Holy Day services at the local Reform congregation, Temple Beth El. Last year’s campus Chanukah party engaged 200 student celebrants, up from 60 four years earlier. The campus seder, a hallmark Jewish life event, sells out weeks in advance.
Westminster College (UT)
This year, Westminster College in Salt Lake City—the only private liberal arts college in Utah—became the state’s only Hillel-affiliated college. As a result, membership in Westminster Hillel is now open to any college student in the state. The student-run group, with faculty support, currently has 35 members from the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College as well as Westminster. Students receive a complimentary membership to the URJ’s Temple Har Shalom (Mountain of Peace) in Park City. Rabbi Joshua Aaronson, who serves as spiritual leader of North America’s only ski-in ski-out shul (on the slopes of Deer Valley Resort during the winter months), says he’s committed to “assisting in any way possible to make the Westminster Hillel one of the finest small-college Hillels in the country”; Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman of the URJ’s Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Like City has been actively supporting the new Hillel
group as well.
Hillel’s kick-off activity was last year’s Chanukah party with a live band. During Admitted Students Week, a Hillel table welcomed Jewish students with original design T-shirts and hamentaschen . And on Pesach, Hillel students partnered with Jewish Family Service in creating and delivering Passover food baskets for needy area families. They also enjoyed a Hillel seder with students from other colleges who responded to posters displayed on their campuses.—Claire D. Friedlander, college consultant to Jewish Family Service in Stamford and Westport, CT; college advisor, Jewish High School of Connecticut; former vice president, Temple Sinai, Stamford