There’s a New Hillel in Town
by Gabi P. Remz
For a newly arrived freshman seeking a Jewish community on campus, the choice used to be obvious. There was just one place to go, and while it might not have been perfect, it was Jewish. When the first Shabbos at college came around, you would mosey on over to Hillel for dinner and maybe even some services.
But times have changed, and while Hillel is still an extremely popular and vital source of Jewish life on campus, alternatives are popping up all over the country—and thriving.
Most notably, Chabad has developed an extremely strong presence on many campuses, sometimes eclipsing attendance figures of Hillel and being considered the primary source of Jewish life on campus.
But lately, smaller communities and movements have created names for themselves. Perhaps the strongest of these is a group called Meor, an organization, that, according to the Northwestern University affiliate’s website, is “dedicated to extending Jewish learning opportunities to the broadest spectrum of Jewish students.” That is, Meor often works to help students strengthen their Jewish literacy through a variety of programs targeting both students with advanced and beginning Jewish backgrounds.
Meor currently operates on 26 college campuses, from large public universities like the University of Georgia to some of the most elite schools in the country, such as Yale, Harvard and MIT.
Sharona Sernik, a Northwestern University student who is now very involved in Meor, assumed her Jewish life would consist of Friday night dinners at Hillel when she first got to school. But things quickly changed when her friends led her to the Meor building.
“When I started to go to Meor’s weekly events, I realized that they had a lot more to offer than Friday night dinners,” Sernik said. “There was always a group of students who wanted to learn about Judaism and about each other, and I loved that exposure. I had never learned about Judaism formally and the intellectual approach they took was really fascinating.”
Northwestern is a prime example of a university that has three different Jewish organizations operating simultaneously, and the groups often overlap in terms of specific students who attend events.
“People like to say that on a Friday night you go to Hillel for services and to socialize, to Meor for the dinner, and to Chabad for drinks and dessert,” Sernik said. “I think that captures the way people see the [multiple Jewish organizations’] different roles.”
While many can be satisfied by some combination of Hillel, Chabad and Meor, there are still those who look for independent minyans, unaffiliated with the major national movements that are bound to a certain ideology.
Ben Chartock, a student at Cornell University, wasn’t even searching for a Jewish community when he arrived on campus. But when dragged to Friday night services by a friend, (whom Chartock coincidentally met when playing a round of Jewish geography) he heard murmurs of something called the “Round Table Minyan.” Chartock says this oddly-named group was described as “mixed-sex seating, singing Kabalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv,” and was, as the name suggests, strictly meant for services while sitting at a round table. The Minyan maintains a loose association with Hillel, but generally operates independently.
“The Table Minyan was all about davening,” Chartock said. “I didn’t feel like I was there to show my face but rather that I was there to do our davening and be part of a larger life.”
One major draw to the Minyan, Chartock explained, was the mix of students who defied the typical Hillel or Chabad crowd.
“The kids are part Modern Orthodox, part pluralistic, part Conservative, part environmental hippie, part Reform, and part serious students,” Chartock said.
The Round Table Minyan serves an example of a growing number of small communities—often dedicated only to services—that are shaped by students and are proud alternatives to typical campus offerings.
Of course, there are downsides to these smaller movements. The size factor is considerable, as Chabad and Hillel are able to draw significantly more students (though the total number varies from school to school). And while a small community might sound appealing, leaving the mainstream of Jewish life can lead to a certain degree of alienation. Additionally, Hillel and Chabad are both beneficiaries of powerful donors, a feat much harder to achieve without name recognition.
Hillel and Chabad still dominate college campuses throughout the country, and they will for a while. But while the standard options might be easiest, a little extra searching or happenstance might put new college freshmen in unexpected, but wildly important, settings that cultivate their Jewish identities for four of their most formative years.