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Jewish Journal

College students are a new breed of philanthropists

by Celia Soudry

November 15, 2007 | 7:00 pm

It's not uncommon for well-established, wealthy members of a community to donate money to various causes, but these days, there's a new breed of philanthropist in town -- the college student.

University Hillels throughout Southern California are developing philanthropy and fundraising groups. UCLA, Cal State Northridge, USC and Cal State Long Beach all have implemented programs that attempt to instill a giving spirit in students.

UCLA Hillel's Philanthropy Society, for example, has raised $1,500 from student membership fees. The goal for the upcoming year is to raise $8,000, said Stacey Klein, Hillel student board president and sociology major, who is in her senior year.

There are currently 27 members in the society, but Klein hopes that number will rise to 150. With the philanthropy society, "you see where the money is going, and students realize it will benefit themselves and the community," Klein said.

Celebrity meet-and-greets are among the activities the group sets up for its members, and Mayim Hoya Bialik was the first. Bialik, who is widely known for her starring role on the early '90s NBC-TV series "Blossom," spoke to the Hillel group about her graduate studies at UCLA, Judaism and what life is like as an actress.

Arlene Miller, associate director for Jewish student life at UCLA Hillel, hopes that the society will encourage students to become donors and future leaders. "After leaving college, we want students to breathe life into their communities through giving," she said.

USC's student-run fundraising-community service group, SC Tzedek, is comprised of thousands of students who raise money by selling Darfur awareness bracelets, as well as through a fundraising drive that encourages students with leftover money on their meal cards to buy canned goods on campus for donations.

"We are teaching the students what it means to be a good human being," said Steven Mercer, executive director of USC Hillel. As part of the college experience, students learn how to be successful socially as well as in their careers, and Hillel is providing another element to that education, he said.

David Levy, executive director of the regional Los Angeles Hillel, has observed an increase in Hillel philanthropy and fundraising efforts in Southern California over the years.

"Social justice and tzedek work has been important in each of our Hillels," he said. Describing the hands-on work in which students participate, such as yearly spring break trips to the Gulf Coast and South America, he said it is "pretty intense and wonderful."

The goal of Hillel is identity building, he explained. Hillel connects philanthropy to Judaism in different ways, whether through Torah study or baking challah.

Levy is especially proud of Challah for Hunger, which started at Claremont McKenna College in 2004. Ellie Winkleman, a Claremont student, launched the project with her desire to create a Jewish community on campus, along with her love for baking challah. The challahs, baked by students at Hillel, are sold at the Claremont Colleges each Friday, and proceeds go to help Darfurian refugees.

Cal State Northridge's Hillel has adopted the program; there Hillel director Renee Cohen has seen the year-old fundraising group, M-PACT, (Matadors Promoting Activism) grow from six students with modest goals to 30 to 40 students eager to make a difference globally. The group was established with help from a community donor who invested $5,000 to assist students interested in the endeavor.

To give the charitable cause a personal touch, students participating in Challah for Hunger bake challahs in the Hillel kitchen and sell them on campus, donating the proceeds to victims in Darfur.

The Red Cross and Jewish World Watch are some of the organizations that M-PACT works with, urging students to also donate food, clothing and toys. "Students are as willing to give money as much as they are the clothes off their back," said Cohen, explaining that they give what they can. "The focus is to encourage students to reach out to others and get involved," she said.

Cal State Long Beach Hillel has taken on another Jewish World Watch program, the Solar Cooker Project, involving a weekly bake sale on campus to raise funds. The money helps to send solar cookers to the Ridimi and Touloum refugee camps in Chad, reducing the need for women to leave the camps to collect firewood, which places them in danger.

Through this program, "students became aware of the situation. Non-Jewish students on campus want to get involved, as well," said Rachel Bookstein, director of Long Beach Hillel. Bookstein hopes to launch the Challah for Hunger project next year and conduct an investigation into hunger among homeless youths in Long Beach.

Although the Long Beach Hillel is small, Bookstein said, "our impact is profound."

Sarah Leah Gormin, a junior majoring in art history and an administrative assistant at Long Beach Hillel, explained that students can help Darfurians just by raising money through baking cookies with their friends. "Some people call us the Hillel orphanage, because when other Hillels are in transition or when anyone wants to stop by, they come to us."

With young people from Claremont, Westwood and Orange County joining the Long Beach Hillel for Shabbat dinner at director Bookstein's home, Gormin said, "It's a small organization with a huge punch."

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