Sarah Austin is UCI Hillel’s new bright, friendly, and young-at-heart program director.
“I went to Israel last year on Birthright,” she said of her activities before coming to UCI, “and I loved it so much I canceled my ticket home. Over the next year I studied at Aish, volunteered at an IDF base, did a five-month program with Masah, volunteered, hiked, and learned. It was amazing.”
Austin’s advent to the UCI Jewish community comes at an interesting time for UCI Jewish students. With the suspension of the Muslim Student Union and the departure of Isaac Yerushalmi – one of the primary Jewish student leaders at UCI for the past few years – Austin is looking to bring Jewish students on campus closer together.
“We’re going to work on building a strong community on campus,” Austin explained, “such as having open houses every week; students can join us, hang out, have fun, grab a free dinner, whatever they want to turn it into. Our interns are reaching out to non-involved Jewish students who wouldn’t normally come to Shabbat or Hillel events. We’re also going to be building coalitions with other campus groups, so people can start to know who we are and what we’re about.”
One of Austin’s obstacles this year is the sentiment harbored by some Jewish families that UC Irvine isn’t safe for Jews. The MSU’s recent actions at the school over the past several years have led certain people – however removed from the UCI community – to believe that UC Irvine is a cesspool of anti-Semitism. As Austin pointed out, this perspective could not be further removed from reality.
“We want to prove to the non-UCI community that this is a nice place to be a Jew on campus,” Austin said. “Sometimes [the campus] is given a bad light because people like to focus on the negative aspects of something. Jewish students at UCI are active and happy; they’re doing a lot of good things, but rarely do people focus on something that’s good as much as they focus on something that’s bad. It’s really not as bad as some people think it is.”
Asked about what she’d like to see happen with the tensions on campus between the Muslim Student Union and Jewish community, Austin said, “It would be great if we could make a connection. Outside the conflict, there’s so much culture and history we have in common. It would be nice if we could start a dialogue with the Muslim students.”
UCI Hillel has already hosted several events for on-campus Jewish (and non-Jewish) students. It holds an open house every Tuesday where students are free to schmooze, eat a free and delicious meal graciously provided by the Women’s Council, smoke hookah, play video games, and almost anything they want. It has also hosted an enormous Shabbat dinner under a sukkah for Sukkot in conjunction with the Chabad of Irvine and will be presenting exciting activities and programs like: the Jewish Networking Society, a program that offers workshops, networking events, and inspirational speakers designed to help students develop an edge before entering the professional world; Shabbat-in-a-box, which supplies anyone with the tools to set up a large and successful Shabbat dinner at home; a Jewish film competition with $500 as the grand prize; and Hasbara fellowships to help students train in Israel activism. Of course, these are only events and programs for the near future. Hillel has a lot more planned for the rest of the year.
“I think UCI is special, because the Jews here have the opportunity to be active in the community,” Austin said. “At other schools it’s such a big step-ladder to become a leader or active member. Here you don’t have to jump through hoops to do that, where in other schools there’s a hierarchy within the student social circle about who can be what. You need to do this step to get to that step. It’s easier here to be active and give back to the community.”
On today’s modern college campus, where secularism abounds and a multitude of social stimuli can distract students from their religion, it’s important that Jewish students have a location or community where they can draw upon their Jewish identity in their interactions.
“It’s important that students have a place where they can feel comfortable being Jewish and questioning what that means,” Austin stated. “If Hillel wasn’t here, there would be no space for it. Everyone has his own version of what it means to be Jewish; it’s important to take time to explore and question that. Your parents aren’t here to define your Judaism for you, so Hillel is a place where students can be around other students and explore different ways of being Jewish. With such a large campus, it’s nice to have that place to come to be around other Jews.”
UCI Hillel is here for the students, Austin stressed; everything that Hillel does is to help enrich the college experience of Jewish students on campus while allowing them to keep however much in tune they want with Judaism.
“I’d like for the students here to feel empowered, to create their own sense of community on campus and at the Hillel center,” Austin went on. “Jews talking about Hillel events with a lot of excitement, like, ‘Oh my God, did you go to Shabbat dinner? It was awesome!’ is what I’d like to see happen. But we do more than hold events to maintain and build a community for the Jewish students. Hillel is a place where they come whenever they want to play cards, video games, hang out, study, whatever.”