With thousands of first-time and returning students settling into college campuses across Georgia and the nation, Hillel and Chabad look to fill important spaces in the lives of Jewish students.
Rabbi Russ Shulkes, the executive director of Hillels of Georgia, said back-to-school season is a key time to get students involved. “We do our best to identify every Jew on campus,” he said. “Then we go about contacting them and seeing what their interests are and what role we can play.”
Hillel International, which publishes a college guide twice a year, including statistics on the campuses with the most Jewish students, facilitates the identification process by inviting parents to notify the organization of incoming freshmen at www.hillel.org/college-guide/jewish-college-bound. Campus Hillel directors then will try to connect with students before they even reach campus.
While social media play a large role in recruiting efforts, Rabbi Zalman Lipskier of Chabad at Emory said word of mouth remains a powerful tool in his organization’s attendance at events. “Just like students tell each other the best place to go out on a Thursday night or the best restaurant in the area, they hear about our events from fellow students.”
He said the greatest appeal of Chabad is the comfort it provides students. “We don’t have great strategists or marketing teams, but we focus on creating a warm, embracing home away from home for our students. It’s somewhere they can decompress and get away from the social pressures on campus.”
Hillel is a large part of the lives of Jews on college campuses around the globe, and Rabbi Shulkes said the reason it’s so important is that it plays two particular roles in the lives of students.
“The first aspect of Hillel is that it establishes a Jewish community on campus,” he said. “It gets Jewish students involved in Jewish life, Israel life and campus life.
“Second, it establishes what students will do after college. If a student goes through four years of school without attending a Jewish event, it’s extremely unlikely they’re involved in Jewish life after graduating.”
The one thing tying the myriad of events Hillel offers together is Judaism, which Rabbi Shulkes noted means vastly different things to different students. The Jewish community is diverse, and the staff and programming at Hillels of Georgia reflect that diversity.
One of the largest struggles for new Jewish college students is identity, Rabbi Lipskier said.
“In addition to stress and the normal difficulties of college students, Jewish students are often looking for meaningful Jewish experiences, which we try to provide,” he said. “We view ourselves as their extended family and do our best to make sure they have a place in which they can be themselves.”
With new students arriving on campus throughout the state, Hillel is launching two weeks of orientation programming for freshmen.
“The events vary greatly from campus to campus,” Rabbi Shulkes said. “We have barbecues and whitewater rafting trips and take students out for ice cream and coffee. Our goal is to foster that Jew-to-Jew network on our campuses.”
Rabbis Shulkes and Lipskier said they understood that going to an event at Hillel or Chabad for the first time can be intimidating, especially for students who don’t know anyone there.
“One of the goals of college is to challenge yourself,” Rabbi Shulkes said. “We do our best to identify every Jew on campus, so it’s our job to make sure if you’re intimidated but want to go to an event that you don’t have to go alone.”
He added, “We’ve literally had a student who had to have her hand held to get her to that first event, but she was glad she went.”