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Empowering Incoming Freshmen

August 31, 2011 By:
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From left, Temple students Talia Saltzman, Megan Baumel and Becky Millman decipher clues in a Hillel-sponsored scavenger hunt. Photo by Deborah Hirsch

Becca Greenberg squinted at the tiny lettering on her smartphone web browser, searching for the answers to a sheet of scavenger hunt clues that would soon take the Chestnut Hill 18-year-old and a team of fellow freshmen at Temple University's Hillel on a four-hour exploration of Center City.

It's move-in day, but Greenberg and 25 others paid extra to unload early and participate in this new student program.

Compared to the eight freshmen who came to Hillel's first attempt at the preview event last year, 26 is a huge success, said Abe Roisman, the new coordinator for Jewish Life. And he's got even more in store for new students. On top of an annual student-parent dinner and Shabbat activities, Hillel will host its first "Jewish Life Fair," featuring up to 20 Jewish campus groups and educational opportunities during an annual welcome-back rooftop barbecue.

So why so much fuss over freshmen? Simply put, they're the future campus leaders, so Hillel has an incentive to reach out to them before they get wrapped up in other things, Roisman said.

While the state college has long had a substantial Jewish population, actual Jewish life on campus only recently underwent a renewal with the addition of a Jewish studies major, Israel studies courses and the $7 million Edward H. Rosen Hillel Center, which opened its doors in fall 2009. The following year, Hillel staff and a core group of active participants celebrated the opening of a ground floor kosher deli.

This academic year, nine Temple Hillel interns got going before class even started, joining about 500 other students from around the country at a leadership conference in St. Louis.

Roisman said he plans to emphasize engagement and volunteer opportunities in Philadelphia "so that students can feel like they're making a difference in the community where they're living."

Hillel programs won't necessarily be connected to the building itself and students will be encouraged to do more of their own programming, said Roisman, who spent a year working for the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem after graduating with a major in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from Brandeis University.

Hillel will also revamp Shabbat services in hopes of reaching those who don't affiliate with a particular movement, Roisman said. In addition to "egalitarian traditional" services, there will be a variety of musical and guided meditation options.

And, for the first time in years, a full-time Israel fellow will be stationed at the building. Before the freshmen scavenger hunt commenced, Hila Shaulski dropped by to pass out forms for those who wanted to be notified when registration opened up for free Birthright trips to Israel.

"I want to burst this bubble and show that Israel has a lot of stuff that can relate to people," Shaulski said after the group had disbursed into the city. "After Birthright, they're like changed people."

Aside from connecting students with ways to visit the country, Shaulski said she'll do her best to bring Israel to them by setting up programs with prominent visiting figures. Depending on what the students want, she said, she might help them start a local J Street chapter or put together campaigns through their existing Israel club. She's already working with her counterparts at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania to take a busload of students in September to protest Durban III, a U.N.-backed conference which has been criticized as being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.

For freshman Dan Sommer, it wasn't Israel advocacy or Jewish programming, but the chance to avoid the move-in rush and meet friends that motivated him to spend an extra $75 for Hillel's early arrival program.

"I wanted to kind of get to know the area around here and get to know the people around me and I think this is the easiest way to do it," said Sommer, 18, of Newtown.

Kylie Lichtenstein of Pittsburgh said she's not sure how involved she wants to get because she's also interested in community service opportunities like Habitat for Humanity. But, she said, she'll at least come to some of the first events.

"I just like the social aspects of being Jewish," said Lichtenstein, noting that she went through Hebrew school confirmation but wasn't really invested in Jewish life outside of that.

On the other end of the spectrum was 18-year-old Adam Schwartz of Garnet Valley, who's always been active in youth groups and Hebrew school, has a cousin who's an Orthodox rabbi and considers himself Conservadox.

"Judaism is one of my most important values, something that will always be with me," said Schwartz.

He's already planning to rush Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity just a block away from the Hillel, and said he expects to be back at the building regularly to hang out or study. Or eat, he added. He sampled a Passover buffet when he first visited in the spring.

"It was the best food ever," he said.

Erica Shear said she hadn't specifically looked for Jewish community when she was deciding on colleges, but having a Hillel is a welcome change after four years at an all-girls Catholic high school in Massachusetts.

"It's nice not to be the only Jew at school," said Shear, 17, of Worcester.

The young adults chatted easily with each other as Roisman grouped them into teams to hunt for places pertaining to Jewish Philly (the Phylacteries), history (the Franklin Mensch), arts and entertainment (the Sylvester Stalonesteins), and food (the Kosher Cheesesteaks).

Like Temple, Drexel's Hillel will also roll out a few new activities during the university's "Welcome Back Week" that starts Sept. 19. In addition to a traditional Shabbat dinner and bagel brunch, Hillel will host "speed schmoozing" and a Jewish activities fair during a kick-off event. Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, the director, said she'll also bring upperclassmen volunteers to the Interfaith Council open house and other "meet and greet" events.

The goal is to empower freshmen with leadership roles "in the very beginning," so that they develop a strong "micro-community" bolstering the current active Hillel members, said program director Caitlin Shmidheiser.

About 350 students came to at least one Drexel Hillel event last year, said Shmidheiser, who grew up in the area, made aliyah 11 years ago and moved back last year for her current position. She estimated that there could be up to 800 Jewish students amid the 15,000 undergraduates.

Even if the freshmen who come to Hillel preview events don't think they want to get involved now, at least they'll meet Jewish friends, said Temple senior Megan Baumel, president of the Israel Club. In her case, that led to more involvement, she said, referencing her friendship with a former "Israel engagement" intern.

"Eventually, I was like, 'I love this place,' " Baumel recalled.

They'll also get to see the diversity of what happens -- and who comes -- to Hillel, Roisman noted.

"Whatever their background, there's someone else like them and they're not coming to this community as an outsider."

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