“I ate my meals there.” That phrase, or some version of it, is usually the first thing that comes to mind when past generations of University of Maryland students conjure up memories of their experiences at the school’s Hillel.
Still, eating kosher food is not all Hillel provided. For decades, the Jewish campus hub has offered Shabbat and holiday services, social get-togethers and access to religious leadership. However, until recent years, there was one thing in common about all those opportunities: They physically took place at the Hillel.
“We didn’t go places. Whatever we did, we did there,” said Sarita Sragow, Maryland Hillel’s student president in 1962.
Said Mindy Shapiro, a UMD student from 1979 to 1982, “I think that back when I was a student, there really wasn’t this consciousness yet of taking Hillel out of the building.”
Well, there certainly is now.
The approach of making Hillel a more expansive initiative may be most evident in the organization’s Shabbat Across Maryland, which encourages students to take part in Friday night services wherever they are.
That’s not to say the Hillel building is rendered obsolete. More than 500 students flock to Hillel’s south campus headquarters for Friday night services. However, at the same time, hundreds more are lighting candles and ripping challah in frat houses, freshman dorms and off-campus apartments.
“It’s an amazing form of expression. We are not worried about people coming to a building. We want to engage students where they are,” said Ari Israel, in his 11th year as Maryland Hillel director. “It’s not our way or the highway, there are multiple ways. … We don’t think of Hillel as a place to go. We think of it as who you can become.”
It’s that type of forward thinking that recently made Maryland Hillel one of five Hillels nationwide to earn a 2013 Vision and Values award from the organization’s national office. The honor is given to Hillels that have taken innovative steps to achieve the vision of inspiring Jewish students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.
Maryland Hillel endeavors to reach this goal through its more than 30 student groups and 10 fellowship programs. It engages in community service projects and offers Birthright and other international trips. Students are encouraged to get involved through Facebook, Twitter and blogs. One doesn’t have to walk across Route 1 to fraternity row (Hillel’s initial location before relocating to its current dwelling on Mowatt Lane) to find out what’s going on.
“The concept of community is very different [than in the past],” Israel said. “People can identify as a part of something from their dorm room behind their computer screen, and they don’t have to physically go somewhere; so we have to be present there as well, and we are.”
And, as always has been the case at UMD, there is a deep pool of Jewish students to engage and inspire. Of the approximately 26,000 undergraduate students on campus, around 5,800 (22 percent) are Jewish. UMD has never lacked a Jewish presence, but in most recent years, it would seem that footprint is being maximized to its fullest potential.
Why do so many Jewish students view the university as a destination school? That reason hasn’t changed. UMD has always been a comfortable, welcoming place for Jews, and a lot of that has to do with the working bond between university and Jewish leaders.
Take for example the problem created by Rosh Hashanah falling early in the school calendar. The holiday commences two days after fall classes begin on Sept. 3. Customarily, the two weeks following the start of classes mark an “add/drop” period where students who are wait-listed for classes must “check in” online every 24 hours to remain eligible for the course.
Students observant of the holiday would not be able to access their computers during the first two to three days of that period and thus could miss out on the classes they want. But, Maryland Hillel worked with the university’s Provost office to disable the add/drop period until after Rosh Hashanah ends.
It’s making these kinds of accommodations, Israel said, that draw in Jewish students from all over the country. And, that’s in addition to the strong base of Jews who enroll from the nearby Baltimore and Washington, D.C. metro areas.
It’s the local foundation, Israel added, that in part helps keep UMD as a top choice for Jews coming out of state.
“I use the expression it takes a minyan to make a minyan,” he said. [Students] want to appreciate that there is a strong Jewish community that will enable them to grow Jewishly and be comfortable.
With so much on-campus participation, Israel described Hillel’s facilities as “bursting at the seams,” and said that multimillion-dollar plans are in the works to either expand on Hillel’s current location or build a new center elsewhere.
Either way, Maryland Hillel will continue to establish itself as one of the premier college campuses for vibrant Jewish life, whether it’s in the Hillel building itself or somewhere outside of it.
Sragow, who now lives in East Brunswick, N.J., summed up the university’s ever-expanding appeal.
“There are kids from here who go to Maryland … because it is a bastion of Judaism on a secular college campus,” she said.
David Snyder is a staff reporter at Washington Jewish Week’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.