PHOTO: Oregon Hillel senior & UO Sammy President Seth Murawsky volunteers to help deliver to-go Shabbat dinner meals to his Duck community. This year, Friday night Shabbat dinner orders increased from 40-60 each week previously to 200 each week. “Twenty percent of those are non-Jewish students who are roommates and partners of Jewish students,” says Oregon Hillel Executive Director Andy Gitelson. “They are ordering these Shabbat meals for one Jewish kid and three non-Jewish roommates to celebrate Shabbat together, and have challah, and talk about how we experience anti-Semitism.”
BY DEBORAH MOON
Hillel leaders in Oregon are ready to move forward to a new normal – one that emphasizes personal connections.
“If we’re not learning from what the last year has taught us, we’re missing good opportunities to better serve our communities and do our work better, build our relationships better,” says Oregon Hillel Foundation Executive Director Andy Gitelson. “We’ve had a lot of one-on-one interactions with students – just reaching out, checking in for coffee, checking on their mental health, seeing what they need from us, what they’re missing and how they’re navigating the experience.”
Oregon Hillel serves students at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. Both campuses have seen increased engagement during the pandemic. During the 2019/2020 academic year, when two of the three terms were in person, 245 students (216 identified as Jewish) had six or more connections with Oregon Hillel. This year (with a few weeks to go in the 2020/2021 academic year), 305 students (268 identified as Jewish) have had six or more connections with Oregon Hillel.
“We’re seeing our regular students and far greater numbers by taking an approach that’s not program focused or events focused but people focused,” says Gitelson. “I’ve been impressed by our team of staff and the support of our board to be really creative and focused on the individual, which is really what we’re always here to do in the first place. I think we sometimes get pulled into this loop of program development and program creation. It’s nothing we didn’t know could be possible, but (it doesn’t happen) until you’re really put in a position where you have to think about operating with different roles.”
PDX Hillel, which serves students on campuses near Portland, has also learned valuable lessons over the past year. Values-based engagement and one-on-one interactions have moved to the fore.
“What once was normal is no longer normal,” says PDX Hillel Executive Director Hannah Sherman. “The pandemic forced us to evaluate the true meaning of the work we do and have all of our decisions be values based. Our values of care (chesed), responsibility (achrayut), elevate (kedosha) and wonder (hitlamdut) inform our work and allow us to imbue our work with Jewish meaning.”
Sherman says those values are considered in all decisions about programming and engagement.
“We, too, have shifted and will continue to shift from program-centered work to relational Judaism, using personal and meaningful one-on-one connections with our students to drive engagement,” says Sherman.
Shabbats, holidays and other programs reach a broad swath of students, and PDX Hillel plans to continue those programs when students are back on campus. But Sherman says some students don’t feel comfortable stepping into Jewish spaces on campus, and PDX Hillel works to ensure those students that they are not alone.
“After a year plus of social isolation, it is now more important than ever for Hillel to create a welcoming, vibrant and inclusive Jewish community on campus,” says Sherman. “Using meaningful one-on-one connections has and will continue to allow us to get to know students on a deeper level and incorporate their authentic selves and interests into our work. We want to empower all students. … We cannot wait to return to our campuses in the fall, using our values to drive our work and reimagine what Jewish life can look like in Portland.”
To engage students in Hillel and Jewish life, Sherman says staff must first get to know the student on a personal level – to learn about their interests, major, hobbies, favorite TV shows and more.
“Most of these conversations happen over coffee on campus,” says Sherman. She adds that using the information from those conversations, “We can often introduce them to other students who share the same interests and broaden the breadth of our Jewish community.”