George Mason Hillel looks to rebuild after tumultuous year

George Mason University students play games at the Chanukah Casino night. Photo by Jared Foretek.

The ingredients for George Mason University Hillel’s 2017 Chanukah Casino night were simple: latkes, playing cards, dreidels and music for the 40 students who were celebrating the first night of the holiday.

But that kind of basic event is something of an accomplishment after the tumultuous year the organization’s had, according to Hillel leaders.

Na’ama Gold, the former Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center shlicha, or Israel emissary, took over as Hillel’s executive director last month. She hopes to raise the campus organization’s profile and revenue. But first, she said, she has to fix the small stuff, like correcting some accounting practices and updating the website.

Gold, 29, is looking to bring stability to the organization. She’s the third executive director in as many years.

“Things just didn’t work out” with Gold’s predecessor, Rabbi Joshua Ackerman, said Hillel board President Joanne Wyman. She declined to elaborate. Ackerman did not respond to telephone, email and Facebook queries.

George Mason Hillel also is grappling with systemic problems. It lacks an extensive alumni base to draw on for donations, Wyman said. Only one of its eight board members has a direct connection to the university.

Ackerman stepped down in June. Gold couldn’t start work until November because she had just given birth to her first child. In between, Wyman filled the executive role, but Hillel was almost totally dependent upon students to organize programs and outreach.

“The kids really stepped up,” Wyman said.

Now, Hillel has two full-time staff members, Gold and Israel fellow Maya Glick.

By contrast, the Hillel at American University has four professional staff members; George Washington University has six and the University of Maryland has 17.

Gold is hoping to better connect the Hillel with the growing Northern Virginia Jewish community, something students at the Chanukah Casino night talked about. Part of the problem, according to junior Jessica Serber, is that the student population is increasingly from out of state; as a result, they arrive with fewer ties to area synagogues and institutions.

“We don’t really feel like part of the community. It’s just us, just college kids,” said Serber, a New Jersey native. “When I was a kid growing up I would go to Hillel and it was always a good mix of community members and college kids. It was a good time and I think everyone benefited from it, so I think it’d be a good change to have more of that community feel.”

George Mason Hillel got a taste of broad community support last year, for what Gold said were for the wrong reasons. Students for Justice in Palestine, a pro-Palestinian activist group, held its annual conference at George Mason. As a result, the Hillel saw a slight increase in financial support and interest. It has since abated, Gold said.

Some have called the campus a hotbed for anti-Semitism; the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center said George Mason University had the third-worst “anti-Semitic activity” in 2015. And last year, Noah Pollak, the executive director of the far-right Emergency Committee for Israel, told Algemeiner that George Mason’s Hillel missed an opportunity to more forcefully “attack the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and confront” Students for Justice in Palestine.

Gold estimates that 1,000 Jewish students attend George Mason. About 50 of them are regularly involved with Hillel. She would like to raise that to around 200. Gold and Glick are also trying to increase understanding of Israel, using grant money to organize trips to Israel for Hillel students and non-Jewish student organization leaders.

“I want them to be proud of their Jewish identity and be proud of them being pro-Israeli,” Gold said. “I’m not telling them what kind of pro-Israel to be. It’s just to make them understand Israel’s part in Judaism.”

At the Chanukah Casino, students were less concerned about the long-term health of the organization. Amanda Chebat, a senior who leads Hillel’s student board, was just hoping to make students relaxed for the first night of Chanukah, which coincided with the school’s final exams.

Gold led the students in Chanukah blessings and a brief reflection on the significance of the holiday before the games kicked off.

“Mason’s like my home away from home,” Chebat said. “It’s where I come to celebrate holidays because I can’t be with my parents. It feels like home, and Na’ama and Maya are like our parents, basically.”

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