Connecting youth through Hillel

by Sara Gilbert 

Hillel at Super Sunday

Hillel students, along with director Rabbi Dov Oliver, pitch in a the federation’s Super Sunday.

When the need to establish a Jewish presence on the campus of SUNY Rockland collided with Rockland Jewish Family Service seeking to do outreach work with student populations, a new beneficiary of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County was born.

The youngest of the philanthropy’s agencies, Hillel/The Center for Jewish Life at RCC was created just 12 years ago. It was in direct response to identifying a need that a large
Jewish student population basically had no Jewish programming entity on campus.

“We realized that although there were many clubs and organizations at RCC, the growing Jewish student population needed a more formal organization for their activities,” said Tzipora Reitman, director of communications at RCC who was part of an early organizational group that began planning Jewish activities and laid the groundwork for what would become Hillel.

“The goal was to serve the social and spiritual needs of these students — to reach out to unaffiliated students as well as to provide a center for students who strongly identify as Jewish — and to unite these students under the umbrella of one Jewish group,” she said.

Around that same time, Jewish Family Service’s Outreach Committee, chaired by Marsha Forman, now on the Hillel board, was exploring ways to work with the student population as well.

“Together these two efforts merged, a series of meetings were held together with personnel from the college and ultimately we submitted an application to the Jewish Federation of Rockland to establish a new beneficiary agency of the Federation, Hillel of Rockland, and it was approved,” said Yisroel Schulman a member of the Federation’s executive board, and a founding Hillel and current board member.

Since then, the organization has grown enormously, serving more than 1,000 Jewish students at the college. Several hundred participate in Hillel on a regular basis, according to Rabbi Dov Oliver, the director of Hillel.

Events offered range from boating at Rockland Lake and ski trips to community service on campus and social awareness programs.

The student group is run by Oliver and his wife, Shevy, an RCC graduate herself. The young couple seem to have a knack for knowing what the students want and attracting them to activities.

“I particularly enjoy getting to know the students and watch as they grow over their short time here at RCC. I’ve also developed many close relationships which I cherish,” the Olivers responded together in an email. “There are so many different kinds of students and it’s quite wonderful to see the way they all become friends and learn to tolerate each others differences.”

Last year the Hillel put on a Global Jewry Fashion show where everyone dressed up as different Jewish characters in history. And last month they went on a Shabbaton in Brooklyn and the students met the Orthodox hip-hop musician Matisyahu.

Vice president of Hillel Dena Kopolovich says she loves being able to say she is Jewish and not feel embarrassed. Kopolovich attended Yeshiva of Spring Valley until fifth grade where she switched to a public school where she was the only Jew, or so she felt.

“For me, Hillel has reintroduced me to Judaism,” said Kopolovich, 19.

For Racheli Hirshfeld, 23, it started out with just a few visits to Hillel during her time at RCC from 2007 to 2009. “I liked them,” she said of the activities.

Now at New York University, where she is studying English education, Hirshfeld is extremely active in that campus Hillel, serving as the Jewish Agency fellow on campus and on the board of Gesher, the pro-Israel group on campus.

Shevy Oliver was involved with Hillel when she was a student. “I love the energy of young adults and college students,” she said. “And I know this is a crucial time in their lives where they will make life long decisions that we can help impact.”

“All my good friends now are from Hillel,” said Brach Leah Banayan, 20, from Monsey. “I love meeting new people and the thing about it that’s really cool is that everyone’s Jewish so we’re all connected on that level but at the same time everyone’s from a different background.”

Kopolovich, who moved around from Rockland to Florida and then back, agrees that Hillel is a good place to meet people. After all, that’s where she met her boyfriend.

“So many students come into RCC without any Jewish affiliation and due to Hillel, they develop a circle of Jewish friends, learn about their heritage, go on birthright, date and even marry Jewish!” said Reitman. “Some students come in after having had less than positive experiences in prior Jewish institutions. At RCC, they can enjoy a warm relationship with the rabbi and start to rebuild their love for Judaism.”

Schulman was president of the Hillel at Emory University when he attended. And that experience sparked his desire to found a Hillel. What continues to keep him involved is getting to know the students.

“When I hear the impact that Hillel has had on their lives, that’s what re-invigorates me to continue my involvement,” said Schulman. “The stories are endless and they continue to blow me away.”

November 12, 2010

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