New Buildings and New Programs: How Hillel is Welcoming Students Back to School

Most colleges have started back up in the last few weeks, and Hillels are already getting started with programming for students.

Hear that?
That’s the sound of parents silently cheering that their kids are out of the house and back on campus, where they have to do their own laundry for the next several months.
Most colleges have started back up in the last few weeks or are getting ready to welcome their students back to school, and Hillels are already getting started with programming for students.
For some Hillels, welcoming students back means also giving them a new home.
At Rutgers University, for instance, a big change for students at the New Brunswick, N.J., campus comes in the form of having their very own Hillel facility for the first time with the Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House on the Wilf Family Campus.
“Originally from about 1996 until 2014, we were housed in an old house that we did not own,” said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel. “We rented. That was insufficient in terms of space and didn’t fulfill our needs for our students.”
In 2014, the New Brunswick Development Corp. and the university began a project “to redevelop the entire College Avenue campus, and we had an opportunity to become a part of that,” Getraer said.
Whereas before they held programs “here, there and everywhere,” starting later in the fall when the two-story, 40,000-square-foot building officially opens, students will have a place to call home, right in a bustling part of town.
“It gave us the opportunity to acquire property here on campus on College Avenue in one of the most prominent locations we would not have had otherwise,” Getraer said. “It spurred us to begin the final phase of fundraising and construction of this facility.”
With a campaign fundraising goal of $20 million for the state-of-the-art facility — which will include a full-service kosher dairy restaurant (the first kosher facility open to the public in New Brunswick, Getraer added), three prayer spaces, a large dining hall, study areas and an Israel Center — Getraer said they have raised about $15 million.
While he isn’t sure of an exact opening date yet — though he said the building will be partially open for the High Holidays — he is sure that students will be able to find their own Jewish meaning in the building.
“We have over 6,000 Jewish undergraduate students and we have well over 1,000 graduate students, and we hope this facility will become a place where they will want to be,” Getraer said, “where they will come together as a community, where we can serve the needs of all of our students in every way Jewish life and identity present themselves.”
There will be free weekly Shabbat dinners, he added, for students to join in after services, whether or not they go to services. And if they do go to services, there will be options that fit whatever their religious paths are.
With a history of anti-Israel activity on campus, Getraer hopes the Israel Center in the new building will provide students a place where they feel comfortable and safe in their support of Israel and are able to talk with like-minded students and staff.
“When this facility opens, one of the things I’m looking forward to — beyond our community — is the Jewish community of the entire state of New Jersey and for our alumni throughout the country to see this as their Hillel, their facility,” he said. “We want to serve as a hub for the entire state of New Jersey and our alumni.”
Another school in the area will have a new home in the coming weeks.
Students at Drexel University may not arrive for class for another week, but when they do, Hillel at Drexel is ready to welcome them back with their fall programming — and soon a new building.
Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, executive director of Drexel Hillel and campus rabbi, is looking forward to their early move-in program, known as Jewniversity, for students on Sept. 8.
The annual Jewish Life Carnival will also introduce students — particularly freshmen and new students to Hillel — to all of the Jewish organizations on campus, as well as a few organizations in the area that have partnered with the event.
Sometime this fall, Hillel will move into its new home at Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life on North 34th Street.
Students will be able to hold events in the new space as well as host film screenings in the amphitheater, and de Koninck is looking forward to having the ability to create partnerships with offices across campus to hold events in the building.
There will also be, for the first time, a full-time Israel engagement associate thanks to support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who will work on Birthright recruitment and follow through as well as “create more opportunities to encounter Israel in different ways.”
Having the new building for programming will also provide a new way to connect with students who are already involved with Hillel as well as those still looking for their Jewish path on campus.
“Our hope is they come to campus and see this as an opportunity to get to figure out for themselves what it means to be Jewish,” de Koninck said, “and how Judaism can help them to live really inspired and meaningful and purpose-driven lives.”
She is looking forward to finishing construction, she said with a laugh, and “to be done wandering across campus, and we’re excited to have a place that our students can feel confident and at home.”
At Temple University Hillel, Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Levitt is just happy the students are back on campus.
“I spend the whole summer without any students around, and it’s depressing and boring,” he laughed.
Freshmen were welcomed to school and Hillel with Fresh Fest, their freshmen orientation program. Parents and students alike had the opportunity to talk with staff and older students about programming and Jewish life on campus — and new students also had the chance to ask upperclassmen anything they wanted, including how to work the subway.
Hillel held a Welcome Back Shabbat dinner at the end of the first week of class last week, which about 100 students attended, and students embarked on a city-wide scavenger hunt where they met different Hillel staff and student leaders.
This week will be the Jewish Life Fair, held each semester. There will be groups and clubs connected to Jewish life on campus, from fraternities to a cappella groups, as well as a barbecue.
Hillel President Max Buchdahl, a junior studying journalism with a minor in political science, hopes Hillel will provide what students are looking for this year.
“If being Jewish is a priority and you’ve come to Temple wanting to find some kind of Jewish community, we’re the perfect one to reach out to and engage with and become a student leader yourself,” he said.
At Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, students were plenty busy in the first few days back to school before classes started with barbecues and Shabbat dinner and midnight pancakes.
They started with a retreat, where new students could get to know one another as well as upperclassmen.
“It’s really hard when you get to campus and you don’t really know anyone, and we thought, ‘Why don’t we connect new students with each other and get to know each other,’” noted senior engagement associate Lauren Epstein.
They have six initiatives under a weeklong New Student Orientation — commonly referred to NSO, as Penn students love using acronyms, laughed Ira Blum, director of Jewish student life. These span from a campus-wide barbecue, which was held last Saturday, to a dessert reception.
They are looking forward to starting new programs — like peer-to-peer engagement programs — and helping the students find their own Jewish path.
“Though we have all these initiatives and clubs students can join, it’s really finding what the students want,” Epstein said. “What they want to experience, what they want to try out, what turns them on about Judaism, and what doesn’t, and meeting them where they’re at and seeing how we can grow.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here