HomeNovember 2013New Direction

New Direction

Out-of-the-box thinking is going to put more resources where needed to “fully serve the increasing Jewish student population of Orange County,” as Daniel Y. Harris, CEO of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, explained.  “It’s an expansion, an emergence, a better way to serve the students.”
Instead of putting much of its resources into renting space on one campus, Hillel is allocating those resources to more staff, more events and more programs on the three major campuses in the county and more capabilities to send students to conferences held by pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC, StandWithUs and the David Project.  Hillel will be more actively hosting Shabbat dinners weekly or bi-weekly, holding more Israel festivals on campuses and having more Israel programs, including speaker events, films and Israel advocacy workshops.
“It’s a mobile Hillel, using social media channels and physical spaces on campuses,” Harris added.  “We’re meeting on campuses as a staff with students, and we’re able to hold more activities.  It’s the future of communications and operations.”
Harris views his staff and himself as facilitators who “empower and inspire students to become leaders,” he said.  “It’s an effective strategy when students lead services for their peers, and we act as facilitators, mentors, resources and support people.”
Harris expects that the current Hillel staff of three will expand to five or six very shortly.  Eventually, there will be program associates at all three Orange County universities – UCI, CSUF and Chapman.  As to the eight community colleges in the county, most are in proximity to the universities, and students there can come to events at the universities.  Harris expects to hire a staff person to oversee all of the community college programs at some point.
In addition to Harris, Bradley Erbesfield serves as assistant director, and Lihi Gordon is the new Milstein Israel Fellow of Orange County.  Funded by the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation in Encino, Gordon is the first fellow to be hired out of the eight or ten campuses where the program is active.
Gordon, a native of Hadera, Israel, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, lived in Tel Aviv for the past two years before arriving in Orange County in August.  She did her military service in the Israeli Air Force, then spent six months in Miami.  She went back to Israel to do her undergraduate work in communications and obtain a master’s degree in diplomacy.
“I was working at an ad agency in Israel, and I decided I wanted to do something good for the community,” she said.  “I applied for the Jewish Agency and ended up being an Israel Fellow serving all three major campuses and all of Orange County for the first time.”
Gordon is actively developing Israel programs all over the county.  UCI and Chapman have a program called Talking Israel, about issues going on in Israel, including politics, culture, music and cinema.  CSUF is having a memorial for Itzhak Rabin.  There will be Krav Maga classes at UCI and CSUF.  In addition to Anteaters for Israel at UCI, there will be Panthers for Israel at Chapman and Titans for Israel (or iTimes) at CSUF.
Another group Gordon is spearheading is Mishelanu, for students who were born in Israel or whose parents were born in Israel.  “These are students with a ‘half-triangle’ identity, caught between the two cultures,” she said.
Gordon added that some of the students on the local campuses know a lot about Israel, and she hopes they will take advantage of programs like Birthright, internships and volunteering opportunities in Israel to learn and see even more.
“It’s a pleasure to let students know about and experience Israel firsthand,” she said.  “I’m staffing Birthright, so the students can reconnect at a profound level on a very engaging trip.  The students see a lot of negative news about Israel on TV, but they quickly learn that Israel is about much more than wars, camels and falafel.”
According to Bryan Pepper, who is the new board chair of Hillel, the new direction Hillel is taking is “putting resources closer to the students.”  The program is “more mobile and more direct.”  It is “aimed at creating memorable Jewish experiences.”
Pepper, along with the rest of the executive committee – Rick Matros, Gene Spiritus, Seth Siegel and Cindy Furst – are working to help Harris and his staff accomplish those goals for young Jewish students.
“When I was in college, we did not have Hillel on campus,” said Pepper, who is the immediate past chair of YLD, the Young Leadership Division of Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS).  “We had the Union of Jewish Students, which didn’t resonate with me.  It was religious, rather than community-oriented.  Now, since I’ve been on the Hillel board since 2009, I understand the importance of the work this organization does to engage students.”
Pepper added, “Whatever perceptions students have of what Hillel is, we have to convey the idea that it is a communal organization and help them to create the experiences that they want, whether they’re looking for communal or spiritual experiences or both.  We need to give them the opportunity to find and create their own identity and hope that they will look for similar opportunities wherever they land after college.  It’s a great opportunity to build the next generation of Jewish leaders.”
Pepper believes that connecting young Jewish people in college is a great way to let them discover that they like to be part of something.  “Developing a strong sense of Hillel creates a strong desire to stay involved after leaving the campus, but we have to show that Hillel is more than just a place to have Shabbat dinner; it’s a place to find Jewish identity, engage with others and find something of meaning and value,” he explained.
He concluded, “Our challenge is to get the message out there.  This is a tremendous opportunity to reach people at a point in life when they are in control of making their own decisions for the first time.”
Is it working?  Students – and their families – seem to be turning out in record numbers for Hillel events, and much is yet to come.  Harris reported that a student-led Shabbat service and dinner at Chapman drew 225 students, parents, grandparents and alumni – “the largest turnout in the history of Hillel at Chapman.  A recent UCI Shabbat dinner sponsored by Hillel and Chabad drew 100 students, and a bonfire at CSUF drew 50.
The lay leaders are pitching in with their own talents.  Cindy and Michael Furst will host a fundraising event featuring Cindy on the piano and Seth Siegel and Susan Levinstein singing.  Watch this space for more details.
For more information, contact the Hillel Foundation of Orange County at 8502 E. Chapman Avenue #442, Orange, California 92869; Daniel@ochillel.org; or (714) 599-1642.

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