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Jewish Journal

Hillel opens its doors to non-Jews

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 4, 2008 | 10:06 am

This is an interesting story. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is no longer for Jews. Not entirely, at least.

At Syracuse University, the election of a non-Jewish student to the Hillel board occasioned some opposition. But while a meeting must sometimes pause to explain a particular Jewish phrase or practice, student leaders mostly say the addition has been positive.

“I think it’s been a mutually beneficial experience for not only him and the board, but for also the community at large to see that we’ve reached beyond the Jewish student, that we’ve reached beyond what Hillel’s stereotype is, and to bring in other types of people, and to really let ourselves realize that Hillel isn’t just for one type of person,” sophomore Jillian Zarem said. “It’s for as many different people as we can reach out to.”

At the Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, a Korean student who regularly attended Shabbat dinners at Hillel managed to recruit his Jewish roommate who previously wouldn’t set foot inside the building.

“How did he do it?” asked Aaron Weil, the executive director of the Pitt center. “He said, ‘John, I’m a Baptist. I’m Korean. I’m going to Hillel. Don’t you think it’s a little bit odd that I’m willing to go to Hillel and you’re not?’ He didn’t have a comeback for that, and he came in and saw the open community.”

“The benefit to us,” Weil continued, “is by making ourself a place that is open to all, Jews are going to feel more comfortable to go there because they’re not going to a place that is Jewish only. Jews are looking today, in general, for opportunities to be Jewish but not to be separate.”

Now, I’m not one to criticize non-Jews who want to be involved with Jewish life. In fact, as most of you know, I share such an affinity. I’m just hard-pressed to think of a Muslim or Christian or Hindu organization from college that had a Jew among its leaders.

But college is a time of deep spiritual seeking, and maybe Hillel has indirectly stumbled upon an effective form of Jewish outreach. The open-door policy certainly has been appreciated by Rupa Lalchandani, who arrived at UCLA having spent the previous decade attending Bal Vihar, “which is like Sunday School for Hindus.”

During her first two quarters, though, the only education she received was on campus. “There was a religious void in my life.”

So she began seeking. She found the Hindu Students Council, for which she currently helps plan weekly discussions. She also started attending church each Sunday with a close friend. And she began hanging out at Hillel with Jewish friends. Next year, she says, she wants to visit a monastery.

“Religion centers me. College life is so fast. It is always one thing after another, especially in Los Angeles ... I wanted time to think about what I was doing with my life,” the fourth-year psychobiology student says. “Everyone is on a spiritual quest, whether or not we realize it. It’s a lifelong process.”

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