Greater Philly Hillel Network Focuses on ‘Small But Mighty’ Campuses (Updated)

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Update (9/5/19): Information about the number of Jewish students at West Chester University has been corrected.

Two West Chester Hillel students flank the school mascot
West Chester Hillel students flank the school mascot. (Courtesy of Tslil Shtulsaft)

Out of the remains of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, the Greater Philly Hillel Network has risen anew.

Along with a name change comes a shift in focus for the organization — the accumulation of a restructure initiated last year.

In January 2018, the leadership of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia voted to restructure. This came about because the Hillels at Drexel University, Temple University and University of Pennsylvania had grown to a point where they either were or could be independent organizations.

The restructuring left Philadelphia’s smaller Hillels at West Chester University, Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College and the Jewish Graduate Student Network as a part of the organization.

In July, the organization was revamped as Greater Philly Hillel Network, with more of a focus on Jewish life on the “small but mighty” college campuses throughout the Greater Philadelphia.

Executive Director Tslil Shtulsaft said many of those campuses historically were underresourced and underserved. He described the previous incarnation of the organization as a regional system supporting all regional Hillels, but with a strong focus on Penn, Temple and Drexel.

So, in the past two years, there has been an effort to increase Jewish programming on the smaller campuses.

“It has been night and day from what it was to what it is now,” Shtulsaft said. “It’s really clear, even in the last year as we started to shift resources, that it has just made a huge impact on Jewish life on those campuses.”

Support has been specifically tailored for each campus. One example Shtulsaft gave was West Chester, which he described as a “suitcase school,” with most students commuting to class or heading to family residences on the weekend. Through the revamp, West Chester Hillel for the first time is leading a Birthright trip, with more than 20 students already preregistered to visit Israel in December.

“If you’d talk to anyone two-plus years ago, they’d say that was just impossible,” Shtulsaft said. “That’s a really great example of why it’s important to allocate more resources to these campuses.”

West Chester Hillel has been able to use additional resources to expand its staff from a single part-time employee to a full-timer, with Jenn Reiss serving as director of Jewish Student Life. Hillel there has also added two new part-timers — rabbinic intern David Goodman and an Israel fellow who splits time between the school and Temple.

“Just in one year, this organization has helped us grow dramatically,” Reiss said.

West Chester Hillel recently reached out to the approximately 500 Jewish students on campus for feedback. Reiss said they learned many were looking for opportunities to express their Judaism but weren’t interested in participating in Hillel events. So a new program called Shabbat Across West Chester will launch this fall.

The program will enable students to host Shabbat in their own homes. West Chester Hillel will provide a stipend to buy food for those who sign up and give them a care package equipped with challah, grape juice, candles and prayer cards in Hebrew with English translations. Reiss said many of these students have never participated in Shabbat or haven’t done so in years, so the program aims to help them embrace their Jewish culture.

“They were looking for a way to incorporate Judaism into their life without going through Hillel,” Reiss said. “We really work with the demographic of our students, and we are meeting them where they are at.”

In the future, Shtulsaft said the long-term goal of Greater Philly Hillel Network is to expand its support for Hillels on other local campuses, such as Arcadia University, Ursinus College and Villanova University.

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