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Hillel groups respond to hate acts by bringing together campus communities

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More than 1,000 students, led by Sam Weiner, son of Paramus’ Rabbi Arthur Weiner, rallied at Rutgers Wednesday morning in a show of unity against the Westboro Baptist Church. Courtesy of Sam Weiner

SAN FRANCISCO – Stanford University’s Jewish community celebrated the first night of Sukkot eating the traditional festive meal inside the sukkah they put up every year.

The next morning, on Oct. 3, a student walked into the sukkah to discover that it had been vandalized: Someone had spray-painted large phalluses on the entrance flaps.

Campus police were called and the graffiti were covered with tapestries. Hillel alerted the entire campus with an e-mail blast.

Although the attack may have been shocking and upsetting, it was not unprecedented.

Sukkahs on college campuses, because they are temporary structures built in the open and typically are unguarded at night, are prime targets for vandalism, whether inspired by drunkenness or anti-Semitism. About two are hit each year on North American campuses, according to Hillel figures.

Along with sukkah vandalism, college campuses in recent years have been hit by a wave of anti-Semitic graffiti, from swastikas painted on dorm walls to anti-Israel slogans scrawled on the sides of buildings.

This is taking place within a growing atmosphere of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on North American campuses documented in the revised edition of “The UnCivil University,” a publication of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

According to co-author Aryeh Weinberg, while violence against Jewish students has abated somewhat since 2005, when the book’s first edition was published, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus “has risen to a crescendo — the amount of background noise keeps the debate vitriolic.”

Universities don’t always work effectively to defuse dangerous situations, he says, and the Jewish community is often loath to respond, feeling it’s up to national organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League or Hillel to take the lead.

What has happened in the past year or two is that Jewish students themselves, faced with anti-Semitism or vandalism, have come up with some creative responses that involve the entire campus community instead of retreating into fear and isolation.

Responses to recent cases of vandalized sukkahs are a prime example.

In the fall of 2008, the sukkah at the University of Montana in Missoula was so badly vandalized that it had to be taken down two days into the holiday. In 2009, Hillel moved the sukkah to a more secure location and put out a campus-wide call for volunteers to sleep in it overnight to discourage attacks.

Many of the students who showed up were not Jewish, including freshman Robin Richardson. She spent one night in a tent right outside the sukkah, while two other students slept inside.

“I volunteered to do it because I don’t want to see anyone’s religious traditions destroyed,” says Richardson, who describes herself as a nondenominational Christian. “Yes, it was freezing out.”

At Stanford — in an unexpected outpouring of love and support that poured in after Hillel sent out its notice — administration, faculty, and students inundated the Hillel office with e-mails and phone calls in response to the sukkah vandalism.

Christian, Muslim, and Hindu student groups offered their condolences, said the Palo Alto school’s Hillel rabbi, Mychal Copeland, adding that a Muslim group offered to raise funds from all the campus faith-based organizations to buy another sukkah.

“We were saddened that such an act would be carried out on Stanford’s campus, a place that we generally assume is above such acts of hate and intimidation,” wrote Abdulkareem Agunbiade and Mohammad Ali, presidents of the Islamic Society of Stanford University and the Muslim Student Awareness Network.

Responding to live demonstrations of hatred is another challenge for Jewish students.

The virulently homophobic and anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based hate group composed mainly of Fred Phelps and his family, since April has been targeting Jewish institutions, traveling from city to city to picket outside Hillel buildings, Jewish community centers, federation offices, and synagogues. Their posters denigrate gays, Jews, and others the “church” believes contravene God’s laws. (They picketed last week at Jewish and non-Jewish sites in New Jersey, including the office of The Jewish Standard in Teaneck. See http://www.jstandard.com/content/item/community_unites_as_church_pickets/.)

In early September, Westboro announced it was coming to Norman, Okla., on the eve of Rosh HaShanah to picket the University of Oklahoma Hillel before moving on to the Jewish federation and two synagogues in Oklahoma City.

University of Oklahoma Hillel students and staff, after consulting with the Anti-Defamation League, decided not to respond.

“Some of the students were upset; they said we need to do something,” said Keren Ayalon, executive director of OU Hillel. “I said that’s exactly what Westboro wants, a counter-protest to get publicity.”

Instead, several hundred non-Jewish students and faculty members showed up at the Hillel building during Westboro’s protest to show solidarity with the Jewish students.

Inspired by this outpouring of support, juniors Sam Scharff and Misheala Giddings organized a multicultural rally in the student union. Hundreds of students representing 60 campus groups, from the Black Students Association to the Society of Native American Gentlemen to Sooners for Peace in Palestine, showed up to sing, dance, eat, and sign a huge banner promoting diversity.

“There was a huge mass of support for us as Jews,” Scharff said. “It evolved into something much more meaningful than one response to Westboro.”

Hillel students at Stanford felt the same way after their sukkah attack.

Overwhelmed by the supportive calls and e-mails, Jewish Student Association president Jeff Gettinger invited the entire campus to join Hillel for Sabbath dinner in the sukkah on Oct. 9, the last night of the holiday. It is traditional, he wrote, to invite ushpizin, or guests, into the sukkah for a meal.

Sixty people crowded into the makeshift structure that night to eat and celebrate together. One was Anand Venkatkrishnan, head of the campus interfaith group Stanford FAITH.

“The vandalism of a holy structure is unacceptable to me as a person of faith,” he wrote Gettinger earlier in the week. “The duty of an interfaith leader is not only to condemn an attack on another, but to prevent it from occurring.”

In his letter thanking the Stanford community, Gettinger noted that a sukkah is not a permanent structure, that it is designed to be temporary, even flimsy.

“This is a reminder that no matter how rooted and permanent we may seem, each individual, each community is dependent on something larger than itself,” he wrote. “What grounds the sukkah is not the canvas and metal that make up the frame. It is the people and community that fill it.”

JTA/JS

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Stanford University Hillel members enjoy a meal in their sukkah in October, despite its having been vandalized. Stanford University Hillel
 
 

Free speech at issue in campus Israel wars

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A protestor is removed by campus police after disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, on Feb. 8.

In the wake of the arrests of 11 University of California, Irvine students for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Shalom Elcott, the president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, Calif., threw down the gauntlet. (See The death of academic discourse and ‘Contemptuous behavior must prompt penalties.’‘ )

UC-Irvine has long been caught in the thicket of the Israel wars, its campus notorious in the pro-Israel community for the intensity and often confrontational quality of discourse on the Middle East. But while some Jewish groups have pushed the administration to condemn inflammatory speakers sponsored by Muslim students, the university previously had been willing only to issue generic condemnations of hate speech on campus.

News Analysis

This time, the Jewish community will “intensely monitor” the response of the university, Elcott told JTA.

“While it’s nice to condemn hate speech in general, we expect a very specific response from the University of California leadership based on what transpired in that room,” he said.

In addition to prosecuting the students “to the fullest extent of the law,” Elcott told JTA he expects future activities of the Muslim Students Union to be closely scrutinized and would like to see their programming stripped of public funding.

Civil discourse on college campuses, or the lack thereof, has been a source of concern for some time. But two distinct strategies are now taking shape, seemingly informed by the recourse available to both sides.

Jewish groups increasingly are pressing their case directly with universities and relevant government agencies, serving notice to university leaders and major donors that they expect strict enforcement of campus codes of conduct. Some even have sought to have speakers disinvited whose views are deemed beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Israel’s critics have stepped up efforts to actively disrupt speakers defending the Jewish state.

The differing tactics in many ways reflect the methods that Israelis and Palestinians, by virtue of their power differential, have been led to adopt in their own confrontations.

Jewish groups, possessed of greater political and financial strength, have sought to exert pressure on an institutional level, seeking governmental investigations and leveraging relationships with university officials and their deep-pocketed supporters. Pro-Palestinian groups, generally outmatched at that game, have employed methods more reminiscent of guerrilla politics — disrupting speeches, creating political theater on campuses, and being arrested.

On Tuesday, the Zionist Organization of America called for donors to stop supporting UC-Irvine and for Jewish students not to apply there.

Such tactics have surfaced at other campuses as well.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement protesting an appearance scheduled for Tuesday night at New York University by Richard Goldstone, the South African Jewish jurist whose report on Israel’s conduct of the 2008 Gaza war sparked vitriolic condemnations. In Philadelphia, several pro-Israel activists protested the decision by the Hillel chapter at the University of Pennsylvania to host an event organized by the group J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. And across the state, in Pittsburgh, the roles were reversed: Local J Street supporters initiated a campaign to stop the Hillel chapter from hosting a speech by Israeli hard-liner Effi Eitam.

“There was a tremendous amount of pressure put on this organization, on a variety of levels, in an attempt to force us to cancel the event,” said Aaron Weil, the local Hillel director in Pittsburgh.

For their part, pro-Palestinian students have repeatedly disrupted speeches by Israeli speakers, including one last week by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, at Oxford University. At UCLA, a coalition of pro-Palestinian student groups affixed duct tape to their mouths and disrupted a lecture by another Israeli official on the same night as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was nearly shouted down at Irvine. And at the University of Chicago, hecklers made it exceedingly difficult for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak in October, interrupting his talk repeatedly with cries of “war criminal.”

Even as they seek to disrupt Israeli speakers, the pro-Palestinian students are being cast, by themselves and by some supporters, as representing the cause of free speech.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council has called for an investigation into the arrests at the UC-Irvine campus of the students who disrupted Oren’s talk. A spokesperson for the group, Edina Lekovic, told JTA it was unclear exactly what law the students broke and that there appeared to be a “selected application” of university policy.

Lekovic declined to comment directly on the acceptability of disrupting a public university lecture. But the Muslim Council’s executive director, Salam Al-Marayati, seemed to defend those arrested, saying in a statement that the students “had the courage and conscience to stand up against aggression.”

The students, Al-Marayati said, were exercising their First Amendment rights.

UC-Irvine’s Muslim Student Union has maintained publicly that notwithstanding that its president, Mohamed Abdelgany, was among those arrested, the group did not orchestrate the disruptions. The MSU, however, has not condemned the disruptions either, even though it has long been a target of the ZOA — a campaign the student group has described as an effort to obstruct its right to free expression.

“It is ironic that the university would honor the representative of a country that brazenly stands ‘above the law’ and punish the students who would rightfully protest his presence as a representative of Israel’s illegal and inhumane policies, including documented war crimes,” Hadeer Soliman, the MSU spokesperson, said in an e-mail.

Hillel President Wayne Firestone joined the Ocean County federation in its call for a harsh reaction from the university.

Firestone, who in 2008 presided over a discussion in Washington about civil discourse that featured UC-Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake, said he has been satisfied generally with the administrative response to such incidents. But he would like UC-Irvine to “come down hard” to send a message about the importance of civility on campus.

“I do believe that strong disciplinary procedures by the university, whether or not they’re prosecuted criminally, is in order here,” Firestone said.

Firestone also condemned efforts within the Jewish community to disinvite or disrupt speakers, saying it makes it harder for the community to press the importance of free speech.

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Out of the mouths of babes…

The college campus has been a battleground for public opinion on Israel for several years now, and the flotilla fiasco is sure to create passionate debate there. Jewish educators are moving quickly to get the facts out to high school and college students so they can be better prepared for what’s ahead.

“It’s important they know how to respond substantively. It’s important they know how to respond for their own Jewish pride so they do not feel like a victim,” said Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, director of the New Jersey region of National Council of Synagogue Youth, whose office is in Teaneck.

NCSY’s national office, under the auspices of the Orthodox Union in New York, recently sent out a list of talking points to its regions to teach teenagers the facts of the flotilla incident so they can respond constructively when Israel is criticized.

Hillel of Northern New Jersey, run by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, Bergen Community College in Paramus, William Paterson University in Wayne, and Ramapo College in Mahwah, is on a summer hiatus but is planning for the fall, said director Rabbi Ely Allen.

Hillel is considering a number of Israel advocacy programs such as The David Project and Stand With Us to partner with in the fall, Allen said.

Stuart Levy, UJA-NNJ’s community shaliach and director of its Israel Programs Center, is beginning work on a program to teach high school upperclassmen and college students the history of the region in order to make them more effective spokespeople for Israel.

“That’s where you really need to give the tools and the information to make it work,” Levy said.

Unlike the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when Israel responded to Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers and launching of thousands of rockets at the Jewish state, Israel is much more isolated in this public relations battle, and kids feel that, Glasser said. That, he said, combined with the fact that so much of this campaign is being waged on the Internet — specifically on social networking sites such as Facebook — can affect teenagers’ confidence in defending the Jewish state.

“There’s more sense of being cornered,” he said. “The teenagers in this particular instance really are feeling the overwhelming display of criticism from around the world. The sense of [Israel’s] isolation is one the kids are plugged into.”

United Synagogue Youth, part of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has been forwarding e-mail and other resources to its regions, but its members have really taken on the battle on social networking sites, said USY director Jules Gutin, a Teaneck resident.

“There’s a lot that has appeared on various social networking sites that the leadership of USY has forwarded to each other,” he said. Members “have such an active network among themselves, and the leadership has such an active network.”

Gutin highlighted what teens can do because of their vast connections through the Internet.

“They can play a very important role, both among their peers and communities, in trying to do their best to make sure the facts come through and trying to counter much of the distortion that we see in newspapers and the press and various speeches,” he said.

Glasser would like to see more parents draw their children into current-events discussions and encourage them to voice their opinions.

“If you want them to connect to Israel, you have to connect them to the discussion,” Glasser said.

 
 

Be prepared

Educators help freshmen advocate for Israel

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Hasbara has brought more than 1,800 students to its biannual training workshops in Israel and is on more than 250 campuses throughout the United States and Canada. Hasbara also provides a variety of options to help extend the knowledge about Israel on campus, through various training classes, film screenings, and speakers for student organizations.

Area teens heading to college may encounter anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior there — and educators and youth leaders have ways to manage an often overwhelming experience.

“For freshman going to college, it can be a very surprising experience, especially if you come from a tight-knit Jewish community, or a Jewish school,” says Andrew Getraer, the executive director of Rutgers University Hillel in New Brunswick. “Most high school students have never had to deal with such a variety of opinions and events, especially ones that may directly challenge their own.”

Getraer notes that while recent news like that of the Gaza flotilla raid is hard for government officials and adults to digest or respond to, “imagine how hard it is for 18-year-olds to hear Israel attacked on their own campus, just as it’s attacked on television news channels.”

Student groups often sponsor events condemning Israel, as The Jewish Standard has reported. Israeli Apartheid Week, for example, was held for its sixth consecutive year in March, on many campuses. According to the IAW website, the goal of the event is to “educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.”

IAW often invites speakers who are known for their virulent anti-Israel sentiments and critiques. Michael Cohen, a Wayne resident who is entering his junior year at Boston University, said of a speech by Noam Chomsky, a persistent and harsh critic of Israel, during IAW at his campus, “Growing up in a relatively sheltered community that had a large Jewish presence, I never experienced anything like it. I was shocked.”

The most effective way to respond to such attacks, according to Lauren Krol, director of the Young Professionals of Hasbara Fellowships, is for students to learn, and for advocacy groups to educate them, “about Israel’s true nature, as a democracy and a peace-seeking nation.”

The organization, founded in 2001, aims to establish successful Israel advocacy on campuses throughout the United States and Canada. It provides information, fact sheets, and educational videos on its website, www.israelactivism.com.

IAW was a hot topic during Hasbara’s workshop last winter. Students taking it wondered why there wasn’t a more united response across campuses. The result, according to Krol, was “Israel Peace Week.” In 2010, this program made its way to more than 30 different schools.

Krol encourages supporters of Israel to keep in mind that “they are on the front line; they should use every opportunity they have to get across a positive image, and they must always remember the bigger picture.”

Rutgers’ Getraer explains that situations on some campuses are more difficult for Jewish students than others. “Any campus might have a wide range of opinions,” he says, “and some may be anti-Israel — this can be very upsetting or confusing for many students.”

At Rutgers, he says, students are encouraged to tell Hillel about hostility in their dorms, in class, or on campus, because it can help.

Another simple recommendation, he said: Pick a school with a Jewish community. “We have over 5,000 Jewish students,” Getraer says of Rutgers. “If students feel threatened, they always have a place to go.”

Northern New Jersey Hillel — part of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey — runs Jewish student clubs at Bergen Community College (Paramus), Fairleigh Dickinson University Metropolitan (Teaneck) Campus, Ramapo College of New Jersey (Mahwah), and William Paterson University (Wayne). Director Rabbi Ely Allen explains that these local campuses do engage in classroom discussion and debate, but that overall, organized events like IAW are not as great a problem as on other campuses.

Allen says that college students are “in much better shape [to respond to anti-Israel attacks] because of Israel advocacy organizations that are partnering with Hillel; there are more and more of those organizations, which is definitely a big plus, because we all need to work together.”

 
 

Colleges with few Jews seek to draw more

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Dean Hank Dobin of Washington and Lee University dedicates the school’s new Hillel house, a $4 million, 7,000-square-foot facility funded by private gifts, in September. Kevin Remington/Washington and Lee

Last year, 19-year-old Max Chapnick ate plenty of vegetables.

Chapnick, who comes from a kosher home in White Plains, N.Y., is a sophomore at Washington and Lee University, a small liberal arts school in Lexington, Va. His freshman year he ate in the dining hall by choosing carefully.

“I didn’t mix meat and milk, and I ate a lot of vegetarian meals,” he said.

This fall, Washington and Lee dedicated a new $4 million Hillel house, complete with a kosher café.

On a campus with fewer than 100 Jewish students, it represents a remarkable per capita investment.

Chapnick says the change makes his life easier — and makes him proud.

“It shows that this place is very welcoming,” he said. “Every year there are more and more resources for Jewish students.”

Nationwide, the same scenario is repeating.

Nearly 25 percent of Jewish college students in North America attend schools with small Jewish student bodies and limited Jewish resources, according to Hillel International. And those numbers are growing.

On one hand, Jewish high school seniors who tend to prefer large urban universities are finding it more difficult to gain acceptance into those schools and are turning to smaller, rural schools, or colleges without large Jewish populations. These schools rush to accommodate them.

The reverse is also taking place: Schools large and small with few Jewish students are actively working to recruit more by building Jewish student centers and creating kosher dining options as part of a “build it and they will come” recruitment strategy.

Admissions officers and deans at these schools rarely say they are actively recruiting Jewish students; instead they say they are looking to “increase diversity.” But off the record, many admit that Jewish students bring certain assets, from leadership skills and good academic records while they are on campus, to a propensity for donating to the school once they graduate.

“We’re a private university, and recruiting high quality students is always our goal,” said Jeffrey Huberman, a dean at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., where just 250 of the school’s 5,000 students identify as Jewish. “We’re recruiting more on the East and West coasts, looking for students in private schools, and the Jewish day school students are very compatible with Bradley. When you go to recruit them, they ask, What is Jewish life like? Can we eat kosher there?”

Washington and Lee’s Hillel director, Joan Robins, was recruited in 2001 to encourage Jewish life on the campus, which had just 25 Jewish students at the time.

“Jewish enrollment had declined steadily since the 1970s, and the administration was interested in recapturing that legacy,” she said.

Robins sent a letter to Jewish alumni, she said, “and the money started coming in.” The school began recruiting at Jewish high schools and yeshivas, and contacting Jewish community centers and youth groups.

As the Jewish population grew from 1 percent to 4.5 percent of the student body, Hillel began offering more services. Now a part of Hillel International’s Small and Mighty Campuses of Excellence initiative — 12 schools that commit to enhancing Jewish student life in return for special training — Washington and Lee’s Hillel runs regular Shabbat services and a lecture series, takes part in Birthright Israel, and this spring sent 14 students to Uruguay on its first alternative spring break program.

“Now we have what Jewish students and parents look for: a vibrant Jewish life, kosher meal options, a very hip kosher café that is on the meal plan, High Holiday services with a student rabbi, plus the beautiful new Hillel house that makes a statement in and of itself,” Robins said. “You can’t have a place like that without a commitment from the administration, and Jewish parents see that when they walk in the door.”

Patti Mittleman, Hillel director at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., where 750 of the school’s 2,200 students are Jewish, said, “There’s nothing like word of mouth in the Jewish community.”

Muhlenberg’s Jewish population has risen steadily since the mid-1990s, she said, making its student body the fifth-most Jewish in the country. In August, the school initiated The Noshery, a new kosher dining hall, and in January a 20,000-square-foot Hillel house is scheduled to open.

“Jewish families are waking up to [small] liberal arts colleges,” Mittleman said. “After you spend a fortune sending your kids to private Jewish school, you understand the appeal of small classes and a more intimate atmosphere.”

Debra Geiger runs Hillel’s Small and Mighty Soref Initiative, which provides resources to 163 campuses with small Jewish populations. Some are large schools and some are quite small, but all have small Jewish student bodies — and want to see that change.

“Jewish students are choosing these campuses because they’re top schools,” Geiger said. “At the same time, the universities realized they weren’t providing the lifestyle these students need, and if they want to attract this caliber of student, they need to provide those services.”

Lehigh University, a school in Hillel’s Small and Mighty program, has seen its freshman class jump from 10-12 percent Jewish to nearly 20 percent this fall. West Virginia University just started offering kosher food this fall, as did Bradley.

“I’m actually shocked they’re doing it,” said Rabbi Eli Langsam, kosher supervisor for Bradley’s new program, which this fall offers sandwiches, salads, and frozen foods. In fall 2011, one residence hall will provide full kosher meal service Sunday through Friday.

More than 100,000 Jewish high school graduates enter college every fall, according to Hillel, and they are a prize catch for schools looking to stay afloat in tough economic times.

The University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., has about 200 Jewish students among an undergraduate population of 2,400. Five years ago the school had 95 Jewish students, said David Wright, the university’s chaplain. Wright said the president pulled him aside and asked why there was no Hillel and how difficult would it be to bring in kosher food.

“The school was trying to reach into new geographic regions, and those were the questions the admissions office was getting from [Jewish] parents and prospective students,” Wright said. “And they were hearing ‘No, thank you’ from those people.”

Two years ago Hillel came to campus, and this fall the school instituted a kosher and halal meal option. Fresh deli sandwiches from Nosh-Away Catering are available in the dining hall, and the student center sells frozen kosher meals.

“The sandwiches go like hotcakes,” Wright said, even though they cost $2 more than non-kosher sandwiches.

Not only are there more Jewish students on these campuses, more of them are observant.

Natali Naveh, 19, is a sophomore at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., where 350 of the school’s 2,400 students are Jewish. A graduate of the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day school system, she says she would not have gone to a college that did not offer kosher food.

Naveh also applied to a large university in the Boston area, but a friend there told her its Hillel wouldn’t meet her religious needs.

“That was the main reason I chose Franklin and Marshall,” she said.

The college launched its Kosher International Vegan Organic option in 2007, with separate meat and non-dairy vegetarian lines, and opened the Klehr Center for Jewish Life in 2008.

Ralph Taber, the center’s director, says these were conscious steps taken by the school’s new president to attract Jewish students and future alumni. The college also felt the heat from neighboring schools.

“When one school beefs up its kosher dining plan, others do it,” Taber said. “It’s keeping up with the Joneses.”

JTA

 
 

Anything goes on campus? The answer is no

_JStandardOp-Ed
Published: 07 January 2011
 
 

Back to school

Looking for supporters

Did you benefit from your campus Hillel experience?

Do you now live in Northern New Jersey?

Did you attend one of the four colleges served by the Hillel of Northern New Jersey?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, the Hillel committee of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey wants your help.

“The people we know who were involved with Hillel have such great memories,” says committee co-chair Howard Chernin. “I’d love to bring all those people together, so Rabbi Allen can talk to them and they can all talk to the students. We would love to get people involved with Hillel activities and events.”

Chernin himself was not involved with Jewish life when he was a student at Fairleigh Dickinson; he is not certain whether there even was a Hillel there. As he moved his daughter into Tulane University last week, however, he was impressed by Hillel’s presence at the New Orleans school.

“We need to look at our program and see how we can improve it,” he said.

Co-chair Lauri Bader also sent her children to campuses with a larger Jewish campus presence.

“There were a lot of Jewish kids, lots of choices, Hillel and Chabad, plus there were so many Jewish kids that they didn’t necessarily need programs,” she said.

“On our campuses here in Northern New Jersey, there are not a lot of Jewish kids, and no other programs. Hillel is it. If you want to be connected to other Jewish kids and be doing Jewish things, Hillel is the only way to go,” she said.

To join the Hillel committee, or to find out how to get involved, contact Rabbi Ely Allen at (201) 820-3905 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Back to school

Hillel’s hardworking honcho

Serving four campuses while standing on one foot

When Ely Allen was a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi asked him to help recruit students for Jewish events on campus.

“Why would I want to do that?” asked Allen. He had grown up in a traditional Jewish home. His parents, originally from Egypt, had met in Jersey City. After 12 years of Orthodox day schools, “I was sick of it. I didn’t want to be observant any more. I didn’t want to be Jewish any more.”

The Chabad rabbi and his colleagues persevered. “Through their kindness and teaching, I became re-observant,” he recalls.

Now, it is Allen who brings Judaism, kindness, and teaching to the FDU Teaneck campus — as well as those of William Paterson University, Bergen Community College (BCC), and Ramapo College of New Jersey — in his capacity as the director, and only staffer, of the Hillel of Northern New Jersey.

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Rabbi Ely Allen

Allen is beginning his 11th year in that position. Since his undergraduate days, he has studied in Israel; taught for nearly two decades at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies; led services at the Sephardic minyan in Englewood; and studied at Yeshiva University, where he received rabbinic ordination.

“I think he’s awesome,” says Melissa Brown, who graduated from William Paterson University, where she served as as Hillel treasurer. A native of Parsippany, she majored in business and marketing, with a minor in studio art. She is starting work as a nursery school teacher at the Glen Rock Jewish Center.

“He’s very relatable. He doesn’t push, he just lets you go at your own pace,” she says of his approach to Judaism.

Four campuses keep Allen busy. He tries to visit each one each week, one day per campus.

All told, he estimates that the four schools have 2,000 Jewish students. “There are a thousand at BCC, but the majority are working full time. We’re in touch with about 400 to 500 students between e-mails and Facebook groups, and the students I’m in touch with,” he says.

That’s a fraction of that of Rutgers. Rutgers Hillel, however, has a full staff, including rabbis and fundraisers and program officers, and a building. Allen has only himself and an office at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The federation provides the bulk of his funding; many area rabbis chip in as well. And he is working to build a board of supporters.

A few years back, the national Hillel office stopped its annual $13,000 contribution to Allen’s program. That forced him to cut back on large, multi-campus events such as a Matisyahu concert at the YJCC.

“The biggest challenges we have are money and resources,” says Lauri Bader, co-chair of the federation’s Hillel committee. “Ely runs his programs on four campuses on a shoestring budget. He does the best he can with the money he has, but he’s very limited.”

Allen’s limits in time and staff do not extend to his personal commitment. “We try to create unique meaningful Jewish experiences for each student. We try to cater to the needs of each individual,” he says.

One of the highlights of the Hillel calendar, according to students, are the monthly shabbatons he hosts at his Bergenfield home, where he hosts dozens of students for Sabbath services and meals.

Hillel brings students into the community, drawing in volunteers monthly to work with the Yachad program for people with special needs. It brings volunteers to help with federation’s Super Sunday phonathon. And it holds Sukkah and Passover programs with the elderly.

Then there are the programs on campus.

Michael Chananie is entering his senior year at Ramapo College and is co-president of the school’s Hillel chapter. He is proud of expanding the Shabbat dinner program on campus. “Last year we had it about once month. This year, we’re going to have a lot more,” he said.

The dinners attract 15 to 20 students, Chananie said.

The Hillel programs have brought Rabbi Joel Mosbacher from nearby Cong. Beth Haverim Shir Shalom to campus. They have sponsored programs with the college’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. And they have had events such as a cupcake decorating contest, where Allen brought in cupcakes and the students were challenged to decorate them Jewishly.

To recruit students, “We do club fairs, have posters around campus, we reach out on Facebook,” said Chananie.

The Ramapo student is happy with the results of his Hillel involvement. “I met a lot of new people. I made a lot of friends. I met my girlfriend.

“I got my Birthright trip to Israel through the organization. It’s been a chance for leadership experience as well,” he said.

As for Allen, he loves his job.

“It’s a very fulfilling place for me. That I can really help someone out every day, inspire someone who needs help. I have a lot of gratitude to God and all the people that help out that I’m able to do something meaningful every day.”

 
 
 
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