Mitzvah Heroes: Turns out Hillel of Greater Philadelphia has its own version of college basketball’s Big Five. Ben Bennett of the University of Pennsylvania; Ava Skolnik of Drexel University; Jamie Gray of the Temple University Graduate Network; Emily Sofayov of Temple; and Halle Watkin of Bryn Mawr College will be saluted as college pillars of civic pride at Hillel’s annual Vision and Values Gala, held at Penn’s Steinhardt Hall on June 4.
In addition to these stand-out students, community leaders will also be honored: Philanthropist Phil Lindy of the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement at Drexel; the late Joe Smukler, the legendary Soviet Jewry movement pioneer and first president of Hillel’s predecessor, the Jewish Campus Activities Board; and Dr. Ira Harkavy, associate vice president/founding director of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
What It’s All About: The students are being recognized for their "ability to integrate the Hillel community and broader Philadelphia community through civic engagement,” according to psychology major and Dresher resident Skolnik, 19. The Drexel Hillel president has accomplished her commitment in part as Tzedek Committee chair, “implementing weekly meetings to discuss social justice issues through a Jewish perspective,” she says.
Bennett, 22, of Wilmette, Ill., has been education chair at his school’s Tzedek Social Justice Committee.
Sofayov, 21, a junior majoring in kinesiology, credits her high school involvement in Friendship Circle as a motivator for continued volunteer work through the years, which includes working with Hillel and, when out of school and back in Pittsburgh, her synagogue.
Pre-med student Watkin is freshman representative on Hillel’s exec board, and Gray is Tzedek Programming Board chair for the second year.
Not a One-Time Thing: All five students are repeat activists.
“Growing up, I always volunteered and led the kids programs during Saturday morning services,” says Sofayov, who has also donated her time at local homeless shelters.
Gray’s other involvements include Mitzvah Mania and Cook for a Friend. Watkin started a Jewish-based community service project in her hometown of Marblehead, just north of Boston.
Good for Them: These good deeds have also influenced the students.
“I have deepened my connection with Judaism” and the community, acknowledges Skolnik.
Adds Bennettt: “I’ve always believed in some sort of tikkun olam. But my sense of what that means has changed a lot over the years.”
Watkin said the recognition has encouraged her to "continue to strive to constantly better my surrounding community.”
Click the multimedia tab to the right for a video highlighting the five students.