Penn State Hillel’s executive director heard something from incoming freshmen this fall that he had never heard before — that they had chosen Penn State specifically because of Jewish life on campus.
The last year has been difficult for Penn State, with the campus rocked by a sex abuse scandal, but students interested in Jewish activities arrived anyway, according to Aaron Kaufman, the Hillel director.
The growth of the campus organization, which plays a central role in students’ Jewish life, earned recognition on Nov. 12 when Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life honored the Penn State chapter with its Philip H. and Susan Rudd Cohen Campus of Excellence award for a large campus. Johns Hopkins University chapter won the award for a small campus. The award includes a $1,000 stipend to the Penn State chapter.
Monica Herman, digital media manager for national Hillel, said the Penn State chapter has developed its Jewish engagement strategies over the last few years.
“Penn State has engagement interns to reach out to students, build Jewish student networks and niche programs,” Herman wrote in an email.
Kaufman, the campus Hillel director, also attributed the award to an increase in the number of students participating in trips and programming, a more active leadership and the organization’s efforts in overcoming the campus scandal.
Kaufman said he does not know if more Jewish students are attending Penn State, but there are definitely more students involved in Hillel programming. The number of students coming for Shabbat dinners has increased from an average of 35 per week in 2007 to an average of 110 students this year, he said.
Also in that span, Hillel has increased the number of students it sends annually on Israel Birthright trips from 12 to 100.
“In the last few years, Jewish life has really taken off in a dramatic way,” Kaufman said.
The organization’s annual budget increased from $380,159 in 2008 to $562,589 in 2012.
Max Katzen, a freshman from Orlando, Fla., met with Kaufman for breakfast during a campus visit last spring and decided right then that he would attend the school. He said he was attracted by the apparent impact Hillel had on the entire campus, not just Jewish life. The student president of Hillel, for instance, serves on the Student Leaders Roundtable, a group comprised of leaders from the top 40 organizations on campus.
“It’s not just the students who are involved with Hillel, which is so impactful and meaningful to students, but the non-Jewish students recognize us,” Katzen said. “They are giving us a voice and a chance to be heard.”
Student leaders are entrusted with making significant decisions and overseeing activities, Kaufman said.
Some of the more notable Hillel events in the last year included “Spiel in Heels: A Purim Drag Story,” an event the Hillel co-hosted with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Ally Student Alliance, and a visit by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Hillel was trying to raise funds for a new building on campus last fall when the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal became public, engulfing much of the campus leadership, including President Graham Spanier, who was fired for his failure to prevent the abuse despite notifications that it was occurring. Spanier, a Jewish South African native, had been one of the biggest supporters of the Hillel building project, serving as honorary co-chair of the capital campaign to raise the necessary funds and helping to broker the deal that allowed Hillel to buy land in downtown State College.
Kaufman said the climate on campus has changed in the last year, amid a cloud of negative media attention that has slowed projects. But he said Hillel has raised almost $5 million for the new campus and though he did not provide a date for when construction might start, he remains confident it will happen.
Asked if the building would be farther along if the scandal hadn’t happened, Kaufman said, “It’s hard to tell you one way or another. But the town and the university are both greatly behind the project.”
Katzen said he was in the student union building this summer watching TV when the NCAA announced its sanctions against Penn State for the scandal. He watched students start to cry.
“I’m proud of where I go to school,” Katzen said. “I think it’s a good institution. I don’t think any of the Sandusky scandal affected academics, obviously it hurt football. But you come here to get an education, and I believe I’m getting a good education here.”