Jeff Fuchs had worked or volunteered for just about every Jewish organization you can name — with the exception of Hillel.
That changed this fall when the real estate developer, 45, went back to school at Bucks County Community College to take prerequisite courses to get into a master’s degree program in psychology.
When he learned that the Hillel student organization on campus had been defunct for about five years, he was disappointed.
“I was kind of upset that Bucks County had this nice Jewish presence without the Hillel,” said Fuchs, who has been involved with BBYO, Maccabi USA, the Klein JCC and Gratz College, among others Jewish institutions.
So, after finding a faculty adviser to sponsor the club, Fuchs manned a booth at a fair early in the semester and tried to recruit students to join — without much initial success. Then he recognized a student, Brad Abrams, whom he’d taught when he was a religious school instructor at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, and told him, “You’re going to be my first member.”
The organization has since found its footing, gaining about a dozen members and attracting more than 40 students to its first big event, a dance held last month on campus.
The re-establishment of Hillel is notable because Bucks County is a commuter school where campus life is not typically as vibrant as at a residential school. That in part is because students usually only spend two years there before moving on to a job or another school where they can obtain a bachelor’s degree.
“Many students just view it like a job,” Fuchs said of completing classes at the school, which, according to officials, does not track the number of Jewish students who attend.
Fuchs has had to rely on small donations, funding provided by the school and money left over from the previous organization rather than financial support from Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, director of the area-wide Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said that, in the past, his organization had discretionary funds that could be spent to support schools like the community college. But parents and alumni now often donate to programs that meet their specific interests rather than to a general fund that Hillel can then use where it’s most needed, Alpert said. For example, West Chester University had its funding from Hillel of Greater Philadelphia cut in half two years ago.
“There are Jewish students on small or isolated campuses all over who are not receiving the opportunities to create Jewish life on their campus that are afforded students at the larger schools,” Alpert said.
Abrams, the student Fuchs nabbed, has since become the president of the Hillel and worked with Fuchs to establish a Jewish community on the Bucks County campus. A first year student at Bucks who plans to attend Temple University after obtaining his associate’s degree, he also works as a student ambassador in the admissions office.
“I hadn’t really been in touch with my Jewish identity, and being involved with the Hillel has kind of brought that back for me,” said Abrams, who now sees him as a mentor.
“I’m a college student, and he’s a very successful person,” Abrams said of Fuchs, who in addition to being a single father of a 7-year-old son and working in real estate, also owns a table tennis club and coaches the sport, including at the recent Maccabiah Games in Israel. He also teaches at Gratz College’s Jewish Community High School, is a licensed massage therapist and, after obtaining his master’s, wants to work in sports counseling.
“He kind of points me in different directions,” Abrams said.