The partnership was initiated by Phyllis Kozarsky, who became acquainted with Jewish students at the small women’s liberal arts college when she joined its board of trustees a few years ago. A small Hillel chapter served Agnes Scott, but Kozarsky found that many students also attended programming elsewhere, such as the Emory Hillel, for greater involvement that filled a void of campus Jewish life.
While no one knows exactly how many Jewish students attend the Presbyterian-affiliated college, Hillels of Georgia Executive Director Rabbi Russ Shulkes estimates that it may be as many as 50 out of what Agnes Scott’s website reports as a total student enrollment of 927 this fall.
Anti-Israel sentiment stands in the way of a positive Jewish experience on the campus. In particular, the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace and its supporters vocally endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
“We take the stance that this is an anti-Semitic group,” Rabbi Shulkes said. “One of Hillel’s pillars is Israel. We are Israel. If a campus has any anti-Israel spirit in any way, we feel it is our responsibility to advocate for Israel.”
He added: “Agnes Scott is not good for every student, but for the ones who choose it, the school does a phenomenal job. One aspect of the culture is that they are a very liberal university. That means, from an Israel perspective, they try to play all sides of the coin.”
But Rabbi Shulkes said few Jewish students have negative experiences. “Agnes Scott has always taken it seriously and done the remedy.”
After hearing the issues Jewish students face, Kozarsky, an Emory physician, and her husband, Eliot Arnovitz, the president and CEO of M&P Shopping Centers and a former Federation president, decided to take a step that would strengthen Jewish life at Agnes Scott. As Kozarsky likes to describe it, they arranged a shidduch (marriage) between the college and Federation.
The idea was timely because Federation is seeking greater connections with younger Jews, and such a partnership provides the opportunity through programming on campus and in the surrounding community to enhance Jewish life at Agnes Scott and to engage otherwise nonaffiliated Jews in the Decatur area.
“It’s a win-win for all,” Kozarsky said.
The new relationship began over the summer and enabled the Agnes Scott Hillel to employ Omer Zimmerman, a Hillel Israel fellow who also works with other small Hillel chapters in Georgia, to devote 10 hours weekly to develop a more vibrant Jewish experience at the college.
“My job is to support the girls and lead the (student) board,” Zimmerman said, adding, “The students are amazing. They really want Jewish-related events.”
Something they wanted right away — to have their own Friday night program and not have to go to other campuses — has been realized. In the first semester they held about five Friday night Shabbat dinners, each drawing eight to 25 students, some of whom are not Jewish, Rabbi Shulkes said.
Because an investment in student leadership training will help the campus organization thrives, Agnes Scott Hillel student board members will be among the participants at a Lake Lanier retreat in January. They will learn the responsibilities of their leadership roles and important skills, such as how to write a budget.
As for the community engagement goals, Rabbi Shulkes said he knows brainstorming is taking place about ways to expand Hillel’s reach into the Decatur community just as the organization does in areas such as in Athens, where he said the Hillel chapter does a lot of programming for the larger Jewish community and for the underprivileged in the area.
Now that the match has been made, said Kozarsky, who is no longer an Agnes Scott trustee, she and Arnovitz have stepped away the college to allow all the good to happen.
“We don’t want to be helicopter parents,” she quipped, although Kozarsky plans to participate, along with Agnes Scott Jewish alumnae, in a soon-to-be-named Jewish advisory group.
With its livelier Jewish experience and the many assets that make it an attractive choice overall, Rabbi Shulkes is confident that Agnes Scott is becoming a more inviting college option for Jewish students.
“Our permanent goal is that Agnes Scott is viewed as a destination for Jewish students and that it be a happy place for Judaism,” he said. “Agnes Scott has a beautiful, unique campus. It has an amazing potential to be a place for students to come and have a college experience and not give up anything” Jewishly.