As School Year Dawns, Hillels Go ‘Back To Basics’

A group of students in shorts and t-shirts stand under a tent with their arms wrapped around each other.
Students attend a previous Penn Hillel event | Courtesy of Gabe Greenberg

Outside of the University of Pennsylvania’s Steinhardt Hall Hillel Building, the massive tent set up at the beginning of the pandemic will stay put for this upcoming semester, as it has for the last two-and-a-half years.

Though COVID is no longer at the forefront of students’ minds — Penn has rolled back its testing and masking requirements — the tent is representative of a model that has emerged for many area Hillels over the past few years.

“There was a point in the fall of 2020 where we had a lot of grab-and-go events because that was basically what the only thing that Penn would allow student organizations to do,” said Penn class of 2022 graduate Karin Hanalel. “Just being able to engage with people and talk with people, even if it was just like five minutes and masked and distanced and outside, there was something just really lovely about getting to just socialize.”

While planning for the start of the 2022-’23 academic year, Hillel leaders have taken a similar lesson to heart: They just want people to consistently show up; the Jewish community bonding unique to Hillel will follow.

“We are going back to basics,” said Greater Philly Hillel Network Executive Director Rabbi Jeremy Winaker. “What happens once we are together with students, either one-on-one or in any conversation at a bagel brunch or a holiday-themed experience, without question, has turned into an opportunity to help our students feel seen.”

As pandemic precautions waned and as students are given more opportunity to be social on campus, students have changed how they have approached extra-curricular activities, Hannah Rosenberg, assistant director of the Drexel University Hillel, noted.

“We’re seeing our students a lot less involved in a lot of things,” she said. “They’re kind of prioritizing their time to a few organizations that mean a lot to them.”

Avidan Baral, a rising senior at Penn, said the eagerness for students to join organizations is important for Hillels to consider.

“Hillel has always had to compete for eyeballs,” he said.

Other clubs offer opportunities to network for high-paying jobs after graduation or promise unique activities. 

“How do we make people care about Hillel? How do we make people care about Jewish life when there’s a million other things they could be doing?” Baral said.

For Hillel leaders, the answer to the question comes in the form of the connection Hillel vows to give students that they can’t find elsewhere.

While relaxed COVID protocols have given students additional opportunities to connect, the pandemic has also left mental health scars. By addressing mental health concerns, Hillels can become a place of connection and support, leaders argue.

“We have seen that students are increasingly seeking social connection, as a pretty direct response to feelings of isolation and loneliness that they experienced intensely for the first year and more of the pandemic,” said Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, executive director of Penn Hillel.

Strategies on how to build this connection differ across Hillels, but have evolved beyond the five-minute grab-and-go conversation from previous years.

Penn Hillel is implementing a satellite Hillel space called The Bayit, which will exist off-campus in order to attract students who were previously under-engaged in Hillel or who are otherwise not involved in Jewish community.

Greenberg is also planning a partnership with a Jewish mental health organization to provide peer-to-peer mental health training.

The Drexel and Temple University Hillels have adopted similar peer groups to increase engagement. 

Temple University, as part of their Jewish Learning Fellowship, will pair students in small group cohorts that will meet weekly.

“It is something to look forward to,” Temple Hillel Assistant Associate Director Mallory Kovit said. “You’re going to see the same people; you’re going to build on the conversations that you’ve had the previous week.”

Drexel Hillel will offer financial assistance to students hoping to host their own Shabbat dinners with a couple friends, shifting their model from holding frequent, “big blowout” Friday night dinners, Rosenberg said.

The social support Hillels give students remain important, Winaker said. As the Greater Philly Hillel Network grows to provide programming to Jewish organizations at Catholic schools such as Villanova and St. Joseph’s University, they are putting particular effort in supporting those students.

For Lauren Arnold, a rising sophomore at Villanova, having a Hillel helped her address antisemitism she experienced on campus. After a friend of hers repeatedly did the Nazi salute in her presence, even after Arnold confront him, Hillel advisors helped Arnold navigate the situation and informed her on how to bring up the incidence to school administration if she wanted to.

By making students more aware of the Hillel on campus, others will be able to reach out to the organization if they are in need.

“We’re really just trying to make our presence known on campus and to ensure that other students on campus know that we’re around and that we’re there,” Arnold said.

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