Almost 25 years after Jewish Heritage Programs formed on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus to entice Jewish students looking for a way to be involved and connect with their own Jewish identities — no matter where they fell on the spectrum — the organization continues to expand its reach.
In September, it added Penn State University to its list of chapters, one of two such branches to open this year.
“Penn State is an incredible school and has an amazing reputation,” said JHP Campus Coordinator Molly Weinberg, who also oversees the program at Temple and Drexel universities, “but as many know, there’s a ton of Jewish undergrads there and, for however many undergrads there are, there aren’t that many Jewish outlets to be a part of. And for the Jewish outlets that there are, they don’t really appeal to everyone.”
JHP is a Chabad-Lubavitch program and is run out of the building housing Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania. The new State College iteration is a project of Rabbi Hershy and Miri Gourarie, who work with undergraduates at Chabad of Penn State.
“There’s overarching rules, there’s guidelines, there’s supervisors, there’s constant support,” said Weinberg, “but there’s also the ability to shape each campus and program to the way that it needs to be.”
She noted many Jewish students may be involved with other organizations on campus, such as Greek life or sports teams, but need “a uniting force that they all could come together and share in Jewish experiences.”
According to Hillel International, about 10 percent of Penn State’s undergraduate population is Jewish. And while there are Jewish organizations on campus, such as Hillel and Aish, as well as a Chabad House, JHP provides another way to get involved through programs that target four areas: social engagement, community service, networking with mentorship, and Jewish content.
One of its big campus programs has already been a success.
JHP, whose activities are run by student interns but funded by each campus’ Chabad House, house annual PB&J-a-Thons, where students make hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that are donated to a local food bank or to those in need.
“Oftentimes, it takes at least one full semester to get that all organized. Penn State overcame this challenge legitimately within three weeks,” Weinberg said, “and they had their first PB&J-a-thon the first semester, the second month they were there. They made over 500 sandwiches and they were all donated to the local food shelter in State College.”
Even Penn State football coach James Franklin gave the students a shoutout as they were making sandwiches, recalled JHP at Penn State student president — or lead intern — Charlotte Schreiber.
“You spend so many weeks doing the meetings and getting everything organized, and to see it happen and to see the community come together and support such a great event really just showed how much this program has an impact on the Penn State community and how much more we can achieve,” said the sophomore from Randolph, N.J.
Penn State students also will have the chance to work with other campuses as part of the JHP program. In a few weeks, Penn State interns will join those from Penn, Temple and Drexel for a professional networking event.
An upcoming challah bake will sell the baked goods to the greater Penn State community. The proceeds will be donated to a Jewish organization.
Weinberg hopes the newness of the program and what it offers will entice students.
“JHP in and of itself offers so many opportunities and experiences,” she said, “and it’s almost a no-brainer that it should be at Penn State.”
For Schreiber, being involved in JHP is a chance not only to have fun with friends but also shape the program.
“It’s kind of cool because we’re the pioneers in a way. We’ve never had this type of program at Penn State,” she said. “My hope and my goal is that we continue to thrive, we continue to grow, to get the word out about us that we’re here, that we are accepting everyone.”
Though students in JHP come from all over campus and all strains of Judaism, they have a common goal.
“We all engage in these activities and we learn more about Judaism, we learn more about each other, we learn more about what it means to be a Jewish college student,” Schreiber said. “I just want that to continue, that people come together and are excited to learn and grow as a community.”