“I can’t express how much I appreciate Hillel. It gives me an opportunity to feel Jewish and I definitely look forward to it. It’s the highlight of my week, where I get to forget about the stress of my school program and seeming impending doom of the world. Thank you for putting it on. It really does help me stay put together.”
This sentiment is why I work at Orange County Hillel.
At The Hillel Foundation of Orange County, our mission is clear. We strive to connect each and every Jewish student to Jewish life, learning and Israel. We believe that this mission is fundamental, on both an individual and communal level, both for our students, campuses and the future of the wider Jewish community.
Jewish life allows students a structure in today’s precarious world. Our traditions, calendar and laws allow us to truly continue the work of creation through creating order out of chaos. The celebration of Shabbat, holidays and other aspects of Jewish life creates a scaffold on which college students can thrive.
Jewish life is a strong counter to a contemporary mindset that wishes to tear down all boundaries to its own detriment, a rejection of the modern condition held captive by the false allure of a world solely centered around social media, grades and job searches.
“Come,” we invite our students. “Come and experience the wisdom of Judaism and see for yourself how Jewish life can bolster and help structure all aspects of life.”
The Talmud records a debate between two early sages about the pinnacle of Judaism. Namely, which is more important: learning or action? After a couple of rounds back and forth a third voice chimes in, suggesting that learning is more important because learning leads to action.
A Jewish community that isn’t engaged in learning, this voice suggests, will soon relinquish its attachment to all aspects of Jewish life and action. The debate ends here with unanimous agreement—a rarity in the Talmud.
Jewish learning allows us to bring 3,000 years of wisdom to any modern scenario that might arise. Students today are coming of age in one of the most polarizing eras in recent history. Judaism demands that we allow for nuance in a world that prefers binaries and extremes.
The legacy of our intellectual tradition with its multiplicity of opinions on virtually any topic, the cultivation of civil debate as exemplified by the Talmud and subsequent Jewish texts, and the strong moral consciousness ubiquitous throughout our heritage—is more important and timely than ever. We have the ability to invite our students into this multi-generational conversation that can help shape and sharpen their thoughts in an increasingly complex world.
Finally, Israel on college campuses is a topic discussed in all quarters of the Jewish community. It is a fraught topic (one that I have written about for JLife in the past) that demands tact and commitment. At Hillel, we have a multi-step approach when it comes to the topic.
Connection to Israel is an integral part of Judaism, Jewish tradition and Jewish identity. We stress this fact in multiple aspects of our programing including Birthright trips, conversations, themed Shabbats, and yearly campus “Celebrate Israel” festivals. Furthermore, we have a full-time Israel fellow (shlicha) on staff to ensure that Israeli culture and society are representative in everything we do.
This connection highlights the apolitical connection Jews have for Israel. In other words, we invite our students to appreciate Israel and what it represents to Judaism and Jewish history, instead of reducing Israel to advocacy, arguments about BDS, anti-Semitism and divisive politics.
It is our mission to clearly delineate that the Jewish connection to Israel is not political in nature; rather it is fundamentally intertwined in all aspects of our tradition.
Of course, we do politics as well. We offer weekly group conversations about Israeli politics, attracting a wide array of both Jewish and non-Jewish students. We take dozens of students each year to the AIPAC policy conference and dozens more to Israel on our political fact-finding trips.
Students across campus frequently reach out to us with questions about Israel and we are proactive in cultivating relationships and showing up to talk to other student groups, regardless of their political orientation. Whenever something happens regarding Israel, BDS, or anti-Semitism on any of our OC campuses, we are the first responders.
The work we do is not only an investment in the lives of our students and campuses, but it is an investment in the Jewish community writ large. Jews between the ages of 18-25 are the future of our community. Study after study highlights the fact that students involved in a Jewish college community are much more likely to have strong Jewish identities, live a Jewish life, get involved in synagogues, and join Jewish institutional boards.
The Hillel Foundation of Orange County is staffed by incredible professionals, but we can’t do this work on our own. In order to serve the Jewish college students of Orange County, we need you—we need the support of the Jewish community of Orange County and we invite you to join us in this vital work.
We are always looking for amazing leaders to join our board or committees. Please reach out to us if you feel inspired to help secure the future of the Jewish community. I’m always excited to talk to people about the work we do on campus. Send me an email at DLevine21@gmail.com. I would love to meet for coffee, either in person or remotely!
Rabbi Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah and Is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.