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Foundation gift funds engagement initiative for incoming Jewish students

In an effort to welcome new students to campus and through the support of an anonymous gift to the university, Elon Hillel this summer launched a pilot project where a trio of student interns reached out to dozens of incoming freshmen with the goal of engaging them in the growing Jewish life on campus.

From left: Elon Hillel Director Nancy Luberoff, with Elon students Michael Gross, Arielle Weil, Emily Cable and Mathew Goldberg. Weil, Cable and Goldberg are interning this year with Hillel in a grant-supported project to engage incoming Jewish students. (photo courtesy of Jonathan Pollack)

Elon University junior Emily Cable, sophomore Mat Goldberg and sophomore Arielle Weil mailed letters, dialed phone numbers and established a Facebook presence for Hillel and the Class of 2015. Their hopes, they said, was to make first-year Jewish students feel connected before stepping foot on campus for the start of the fall semester.

“When I was a freshman, it was really hard for me to go to Hillel events and be involved in Hillel because I was really the only one of my friends who wanted to be there,” Cable said. “I didn’t want to go to events alone, and I didn’t know anyone there. And some people have no idea what the organization even is. This helps get our name out and explains what we are.”

Elon Hillel offers social, cultural, educational, religious and community service events. It offers at least one program each week in addition to a Kabbalat Shabbat (Shabbat Welcome) program each Friday. The most popular activities are monthly bagel brunches, Shabbat dinners, Taglit-Birthright trips to Israel, Alternative Spring Break trips, Hanukkah Party, Lunch 'n Learn programs, Passover seder and Passover meals, Hiogh Holy Day programs and services, and the annual building of the sukkah.

Cable’s experience, and the experiences of other students like her, was the motivation behind the project led by Hillel Camps Director Nancy Luberoff. Luberoff applied for and received a $13,000 grant that funded the Elon interns’ participation in the 5-day national Hillel conference at the Washington University in in St. Louis.

Luberoff and the interns recently joined hundreds of students from around the country for workshops on leadership and engagement. As a Hillel International-designated “Small and Mighty Campus of Excellence,” the group’s presence at the conference was a benefit to Elon, which has been gaining attention since 2009 for its burgeoning Jewish outreach and service initiatives.

“Elon is viewed in the Hillel world as an entrepreneurial start-up,” Luberoff said. “Our Hillel can go from idea to implementation in a matter of weeks. And the Elon culture encourages innovation. There aren’t barriers for us to try things.

In addition to the paid internships and the conference expenses, the grant funds welcome gifts for the incoming students, which includes T-shirts the interns helped design. The Hillel interns also plan to meet in person with students in the months ahead over coffee or meals. The grant includes funding for programs for first-year Jewish students, including a “Meet and Greet Bagel Brunch” on Sunday, September 4.

During the 2010-2011 academic year, 211 students at Elon University identified themselves as Jewish, double the number from just five years earlier. Luberoff estimates the number to be more than 300, especially since most students do not self-report religious affiliation to the university.

Creating a warm climate for the fast-growing population of Jewish students with their own unique Jewish journeys is what led Goldberg to apply for his internship in Hillel.

“I don’t know these freshmen, but I know I was in their situation once, and I can connect on that level,” he said. “It’s tough transitioning in college, whatever your religion. Hillel is a growing community that can reach out to these incoming students, welcome them in and help them with their journey.

“Originally, I didn’t know what Hillel was. For me it was a religious organization for Jewish students. But I went to a few events, and I realized it wasn’t an organization, that it was a community. Any way you want to practice your faith and follow your identity of being Jewish, Hillel is there for you.”

For more information on Elon Hillel, visit www.elon.edu/hillel.

Eric Townsend,
8/31/2011 3:31 PM