Local Hillels Introduce Freshmen to ‘Jewniversity’ in Preparation for College

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A prior Temple University Fresh Fest group poses in front of the LOVE sculpture. | Photo provided

While most students lament the end of summer, some area college students welcome the fall for the arrival of Jewniversity.

Yes, Jewniversity. The program is Hillel at Drexel University’s orientation experience for incoming freshmen.

Now in its fifth year, the festivity offers newcomers a chance to make Jewish friends and move into their dorms before the crowded masses descend.

The program holds added importance at Drexel, where the official move-in day for freshmen falls on a Saturday.

“We wanted observant students to have a way to move in and meet people,” Arielle Greenwald, assistant director of Drexel Hillel, explained.

Jewniversity spans Shabbat, running this year from Thursday to Saturday, Sept. 14 to 16. Shabbat dinner and services are built into the busy schedule.

After the students unpack on Thursday, they have a goodbye dinner with their parents and engage in team-building activities. Friday morning brings a group scavenger hunt across University City, while Shabbat evening offers three types of services, with traditional Orthodox, egalitarian Jewish worship and meditation options.

The program, Greenwald said, forges lasting relationships.

“People stay connected. We see the students [that participated in Jewniversity] throughout the year at Hillel. I see them coming to meals together and doing other projects.”

Greenwald said she expects 30 to 35 attendees at Jewniversity this year, and speculated that the small size contributes to the connections formed from the program.

Sarah Silberg, a sophomore at Drexel studying business, attended Jewniversity last year.  

“I wasn’t really planning on being active in the Jewish community,” she said. “I did [Jewniversity] mainly because I wanted to move in early.”

A year later, she is the Greek life intern for Drexel Hillel, attended Birthright with the group, and regularly participates in Shabbat and other events. She added that she will be involved with leading this year’s Jewniversity program.

“I definitely made my good friends from Jewniversity,” she said. “Jewniversity really gave me a great foundation. I realized how awesome it is to have an active, small community right on campus.”

Hillel at Temple University offers a similar program, called Fresh Fest, for freshmen and transfer students. Held the two days prior to the university’s official move-in, which does not overlap with Shabbat, the event bears many similarities to Drexel’s Jewniversity.

Temple Fresh Fest participants enjoy billiards at Lucky Strike. | Photo provided

Planned entirely by students and facilitated only minimally by staff, Fresh Fest features student-generated activities, including bowling at Lucky Strike and rides on a double-decker bus. A Center City scavenger hunt and icebreaker activities also introduce students to the city and each other.

Susan Becker, engagement associate at Hillel at Temple, said the program allows students to forge lasting bonds with Hillel and each other.

“A good number of Fresh Fest students stay pretty involved with Hillel,” she said.

Upwards of 60 students attend the orientation, and Becker noted these students tend to later make up the “core group” of Hillel students, meaning those that engage in six or more interactions with Hillel at Temple over a school year.

Hillel at Temple also entices freshmen by continuing the events of Fresh Fest well into the semester. Last year, upperclassmen organized an ice cream social and tie-dying event for newcomers, many of whom brought their Fresh Fest T-shirts to color.

Like Temple, Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania holds its FreshMeet Retreat on the two days prior to university-wide orientation, also non-overlapping with Shabbat.

While Penn’s program also includes an early move-in, students do not have to stay in empty dorms, as the Hillel retreat features a group overnight trip at a hotel near Penn’s Landing.

Other activities planned for this year’s 36 attendees include rollerblading, sightseeing and a trip to the National Museum of American Jewish History.

“I did the retreat last year and met one of my best friends,” retreat co-leader and Penn sophomore Carly Fiest said.

Upperclassmen plan and lead the program, offering freshmen a chance to make friends with students already involved with campus life. Fiest said the friendly faces offer comfort when adjusting to college life.

“You get really familiar with the Hillel community,” she said of the program, adding “It’s nice to see a lot of familiar faces [when walking around campus] after the retreat.”

To continue to acclimate students to college life, Penn Hillel holds multiple events during the early weeks of the semester, including a barbecue with live music, dessert reception and midnight pancake breakfast.

“It makes it super easy to transition to college,” Fiest said.

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