Hillels of Georgia is expanding its focus to further include smaller universities, with a Hillel house planned at Georgia College & State University. Hillels of Georgia CEO Elliot Karp said that he was contacted by Dr. Karen Berman, who told him that for the last decade she has been the faculty advisor for Hillel at the school.
“Being they’re a small campus, and not close by [to Atlanta], they got some nominal limited resources and my attitude as new CEO we’re here to serve all the Hillels,” Karp said. “It doesn’t matter if they’ve got a thousand Jewish students on campus or 10 Jewish students.”
Georgia College Goodrich Hillel, named for Natalie Goodrich, who helped to found it, is now being provided a programmatic grant for activities and programs, Karp said. “We’re bringing them into our constellation of Hillels of Georgia in terms of resources, budget, and other matters now.”
Karp said that one of Dr. Berman’s accomplishments was convincing the administration at Georgia College to provide a Hillel house. They’re now in the midst of negotiating the terms of the lease.
“The important thing is they’ve managed to do everything our bigger campuses are doing,” Karp said. They have a board of student leaders; they get together for Shabbat, Jewish holidays, and bagel brunches; they provide many different activities for Jewish students. “We hope to build upon that and provide them with more resources and funding.”
Although nobody knows for sure what the future will look like, Karp said that the potential for Jewish student enrollment growth at Georgia College is going to increase as more students and their families look to the school as an important alternative to some of the larger state schools. “It’s part of the Georgia State University System and it’s known as the liberal arts college. It’s a very fine academic institution if you’re studying liberal arts,” he said. “My vision moving Hillels of Georgia further is we’re not only going to be attentive to our strong, solid campuses, but providing more services to the other campuses like Georgia College across the state.”
One such college is Valdosta State University. Karp was sent an email by a Jewish student there, and he gave her his phone number and told her to call him. “She’s already identified a dozen Jewish students willing to form a Hillel organization,” he said. The student said she ended up at Valdosta to study musical theater, and Karp told her that Hillels of Georgia will come up with a budget for her to begin growing her school’s Hillel. “That’s why we exist; that’s what we’re here to serve. You’re part of the family,” Karp told her. “I said if you were the only one, I would serve you as well.”
When she walked into Georgia College as a professor and chair of the theater and dance department 13 years ago, Berman said she immediately wondered why there wasn’t a Hillel. A few days later, during the first week of school, two students walked into her office and said they were interested in starting a Hillel. She told them she was too, and said, “Welcome, you are the first two presidents!”
Berman continued, “We started as a little bitty Hillel. We were called a small and mighty Hillel.” Nevertheless, they were able to organize regular programming like Shabbat dinners, sukkah parties and social events.
Students who don’t get into the University of Georgia often go to Georgia College, which has small class sizes and more potential for close relationships with professors, which is a draw for Jewish students, Berman said. “We started getting more students.”
Berman’s events include talks with Holocaust survivors, art exhibits, game nights and directing a Jewish play every year. “Our campus student activities have awards; we’ve won for best multicultural programming, and we tend to win it almost every year because we do so many great things for the entire campus,” she said.
Her dream to procure a Hillel house continued until one of her theater faculty suggested the house she’d been renting, which was to be put up for sale. The location on campus was prime, and Berman immediately knew she wanted it. With the help of dedicated donors — the first of which was Georgia College President Dr. Steve Dorman – she began to raise money for the house. Then she received a call from Karp, who was at the time the incoming CEO. “Elliot Karp calls me and says, Karen, we are going to fund that house. We are going to find donors for you. We are going to take over that lease, so you don’t have to worry about it,” Berman said emotionally. “I was just in tears. Elliot said, ‘You’ve been doing this by yourself all these years.’ He said, ‘We are here for you.’ He said ‘If there’s ever a student in need, here is my number, have them call me.’”
Hillels of Georgia sent a security expert from Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to create a security plan for the house and took over the creation of a Facebook page and new logo. Until this point, their Georgia College Hillel budget had mostly relied upon the kindness of local donors. For the first time, Hillel at Georgia College has money to do their programming.
“It was sort of like a meeting of the stars that everything aligned at the same time to make this happen. It was very magical, and I just can’t even tell you how excited I am and thrilled that this is happening for these students, and they are so excited,” Berman said. “It was the first time I felt like we had a whole organization behind us, that we were being supported in that way to make this dream come true.”