With close to 5,000 Jewish students — both undergraduate and graduate — Penn State University’s University Park campus has the ninth-largest Jewish population of any public university in the United States, according to the Fall 2015 edition of Hillel College Guide Magazine.
It is well-nigh impossible to engage them all at once, but Penn State Hillel is trying to get there.
Penn State Hillel is currently in its second year implementing a grant to participate in the Comprehensive Excellence Pilot Initiative of Hillel International.
Accordingly, there have been structural and staff changes at Penn State — three new staff members were hired in the first year of the grant — and this year, Hannah Giterman was brought on as community engagement associate.
Giterman, who previously did student engagement at Temple Hillel, is hoping to close the gap between State College and Philadelphia and other surrounding areas where many students are from.
“We want to bridge what’s going on on-campus to all of our supporting communities,” Giterman said, “because we’re doing really amazing work that’s really setting us apart from most Hillels across the country, and it’s my job to spread that message and get us noticed.”
The biggest change, perhaps, is the restructuring of the student leadership team, which went into effect this past semester.
Where before there were multiple chairs on the executive board, including a communications chair and religious life chair, now there will be only four: president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.
But that’s only one outlet through which students can now get involved.
Students realized that the same people were doing the same things and getting involved with the same activities over and over again, Giterman said, which wasn’t a bad thing, but there was more they could do.
There is now also a Hillel Programming Board, which creates engagement for holidays as well as other times throughout the year; campus engagement interns — 10 students who do peer-to-peer engagement through coffee dates and other ways to meet with students one-on-one to find out what they want from their Jewish experience on campus; and Individuals and Student Groups Creating Jewish Experiences.
Ilana Rosenblum, a senior at Penn State, was previously on the marketing committee for Hillel as part of its general board. She and three others were responsible for running social media accounts for the organization.
“I think the new board structure is a good change not only to Penn State, but Hillel as well,” said Rosenblum, who lives in Southampton.
The changes in leadership will bring about positive outcomes for programming, she said.
“I think that the four board positions — programming committee as well as general board — can definitely plan some awesome events for Jewish life at Penn State,” she enthused.
The grant will help support the funding of new programs as well as student groups that already exist within Hillel, such as Challah for Hunger, Tamid and Students Supporting Israel.
This way, students have more opportunities to get involved — and, hopefully, stay involved — to create meaning for themselves.
“These are people that are Jewish, are interested in creating some sort of Jewish life in ways that relate to them that can come and apply for funding through this executive board and start creating their own Jewish experience on campus,” Giterman said.
She compared the new structure to how a start-up business would work.
“You pitch your idea to the venture capitalist — the exec board — and they will approve it and get the funding,” Giterman said. “You’ll get leadership development through it and workshops and you’ll also be able to create your own Jewish experience with this funding that we have.”
With about 46,000 undergraduate students at Penn State, it can be hard to reach all corners of campus.
This past semester, the first Jewish Leadership Gala was held to bridge that gap. Bringing together Jewish students and leaders across campus, as well as speakers such as university president Eric Barron, the gala was a way to unite the Jewish community.
“The idea behind it was to get all these Jewish leaders across campus in one room together and launch our new leadership structure,” Giterman said. “So these Jewish leaders were coming from all over the place — Greek life, sports, business backgrounds — all these different places and they weren’t people who had been a part of Hillel before. They were our core Hillel people but also just Jewish leaders across campus.”
The campus engagement interns work to meet students and work out what their needs are Jewishly and cater to that.
Through a “90, 70, 40, 20” model, the engagement teams can gauge where students are as far as involvement and figure out how to increase engagement.
Like a bullseye, this model aims to work students into the 20 percent circle. If a student comes for Shabbat one time and that is his or her first engagement with Penn State Hillel, that’s a 90 percent, Giterman explained. If a student goes on Birthright and that is his or her first touch with Jewish life, that’s also a 90 percent.
“Our goal is to keep moving everyone down further and further until they become part of that core 20 percent,” she said.
Once students are in that 20 percent, which means they’ve engaged somehow at least four times, “they’re fully engaged and they can articulate their Jewish identity,” Giterman said. “They feel like they have some sort of leadership position within the Jewish community and they really understand what Jewish life looks like on campus.”
The new structure also aligns with a university-wide initiative to encourage entrepreneurship and creativity through Barron’s “Invent Penn State” campaign.
“We are kind of taking President Barron’s ideas and bringing them to life in Hillel,” Giterman said. “So we have really aligned ourselves with what Penn State is doing but also have set ourselves apart from a lot of other Hillels that aren’t functioning in this way.”
For Giterman, spreading the message of what Jewish life is like on campus and sharing the students’ stories is why she is here.
“For me to be in Philadelphia to showcase what we’re doing to our parents, our donors, young alum, is really important,” she said, “and when our students share these beautiful stories, it’s really easy for me to pick up on that and do that here.”
She is working on building a network for parents and young alumni in the area, which is also important because many students who are involved with Hillel are from the Philadelphia area and will move back after graduation.
Penn State Hillel’s presence in Philadelphia will provide a connection for those students when they graduate and move back home.
“The bottom line,” she said, “is that we are trying to develop strong Jewish leaders and when we give them opportunities like this, they are able to develop those skills and to also find ways to connect to Judaism that really are unique to them because it’s about the students at the end of the day.”
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