Reflecting the dynamic evolution of Hillel during the past 20 years, the Southern California Area-Wide Hillel Leadership Gathering for Orange County, Long Beach, and Inland Empire Hillel groups brought together more than 20 young Jewish leaders on campuses in the area at the end of August to discuss Hillel, strategically program for the upcoming year, and to network. The event was organized by Southern California Jewish Student Services under the direction of Rabbi Drew Kaplan.
Kaplan began the event by noting that the organization draws its name from the eminent scholar, who founded the Hillel Academy that existed in the 1st Century C.E. in 2nd Temple times. In 1923 Rabbi Benjamin Frankel of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana saw that students were developing intellectually but not Jewishly. He picked the name “Hillel” for a Jewish organization on campus.
Jordan Fruchtman, CEO of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, added that Hillel is a “global network of students.” Until 1988 it was a “bare-bones” operation on many campuses with only a rabbi who did education and outreach. Then Richard Joel set about “reinventing Hillel, removing it from B’nai B’rith, raising its own funds, and creating a Renaissance of Jewish life on college campuses. It was more about creating Jewish life in a pluralistic way, not just a religious institution,” Fruchtman explained.
Today there are Hillels at more than 500 colleges and universities around the world, according to Fruchtman. “It is dedicated to the Jewish people, making students better equipped to deal with life and making the world a better place,” he said. “Hillel is about engagement – all about creating community, all about people.”
Kaplan stressed that college is the most dynamic time in a person’s life. He added that it is special to connect with other Jews because of the minority connection, the fact that it is special to be Jewish, and the notion that the community has something special to contribute to the greater world.
Guest speaker Rabbi Devin Villareal of Los Angeles led a session on adaptive change and adaptive leadership. Using examples from Tanach, students were asked to apply to their own challenges. “Adaptive change addresses people’s attitudes, starting at the root of the problem and centering around people’s hearts and minds,” he said. “You have to address underlying attitudes, know where people are, listen to them, and understand what needs to be accomplished in the future. By going through the process, we can create lasting change.”
Other presenters were Sarah Austin and Megan Kanofsky, program associates at OC Hillel; and Andala Zayas, director of academic affairs at the LA Consulate General of Israel. Topics covered were a text study discussion on Jewish leadership, drawn from the Hebrew Bible; a session on considering what the strengths and weaknesses of the leaders were; and a creative session on using pictures to tell a story about a year in a Hillel group.