At Hillel JUC, campus life restarts with orientation activities and bagels
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At Hillel JUC, campus life restarts with orientation activities and bagels

Semester begins with push to help students 'gather together, celebrate together and create communities'

Hillel JUC student leaders welcome new students to campus. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC
Hillel JUC student leaders welcome new students to campus. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC

Bring on the bagels: Students are craving food and Jewish engagement.

To satisfy hungry undergrads, Hillel JUC — in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh — welcomed first-year students to Oakland and showcased a pathway to collegiate Jewish life.

More than 200 individuals registered for programs and activities designed to “acclimate students to Pitt’s campus and to Pittsburgh as a whole,” Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director, said.

The opportunities, which began Aug. 17, include cursory conversations, Friday night services, Shabbat dinner and, of course, a bagel brunch for first-year students and their families.

In each setting, the goal is introducing new students to those who’ve walked these roads before, Marcus explained.

Thanks to several student volunteers, newcomers can “learn firsthand about being a student and a Jewish student at Pitt,” he added.

Basia Silverberg, president of Hillel at Pitt, said that by co-leading introductory activities she hopes to convey how people can not only “feel welcome in this city, but also how to be Jewish in their own way at Pitt.”

Creating that niche is critical, Silverberg explained.

After arriving on campus two years ago, she noticed a disconnect between Jewish life at Pitt and what she experienced growing up in “Conservative traditional spaces” in Los Angeles.

“There wasn’t anything between Reform and Chabad,” she said.

Hillel JUC allowed her to become a Ruach Fellow and create a specific project, which led to developing a Conservative Jewish community on campus, she said.

Most of the community’s activities involve Shabbat services, but what became clear, she said, was that “I feel like my version of Judaism is welcome at Pitt and at Hillel.”

Silverberg wants first-years to know they have similar options.

“Whether you connect to Judaism culturally or religiously, I really appreciate how Hillel helps people make Judaism their own,” she said.

University of Pittsburgh students enjoy FreshFest at Hillel JUC. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC

The semester’s start is about introducing and incorporating, said Brian Burke, Hillel JUC’s IACT coordinator for Israel engagement.

Thanks to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and The Shapira Foundation, Burke said, 35 students spent eight weeks in the Jewish state with Onward Israel. Fifty students also participated in Birthright.

“Bringing that momentum back to campus is a big priority for us,” he said. The students who returned from Israel can serve as “ambassadors on campus” and grow various communities — even those seemingly unaffiliated with Hillel JUC.

Some undergrads may become leaders “on our board, on Chabad’s board or become active in the Greek community,” Burke continued. “In all of these spaces, the students who went to Israel can share their experience in a way that other students want to be more engaged and involved.”

Several of the students will do so during the Jeannette Comensky Kalson leadership retreat.

The one-day program will empower student leaders to “innovate, create and develop programs and activities,” Marcus said.

Between that retreat and other orientation activities, Burke said he’s “really excited to see what this year has to offer.”

Marcus echoed that enthusiasm and contrasted the start of the semester with previous years: “It’s about mood and approach.”

Two hours before speaking with the Chronicle, several student leaders entered Hillel JUC’s building and recapped their summer adventures.

Whether excursions involved Onward Israel, Birthright, other foreign travel or even camping, the conversations signaled that “the mood feels different than the past two to three years” during which so many discussions concerned COVID-19 restrictions, Marcus said.

“Obviously, we are not indifferent or dismissing our responsibilities to the health and welfare of our students,” he continued. What’s nice this year, though, is that as undergrads enter the building and prepare for a new year, Hillel JUC can enable individuals, in a safe environment, to “gather together, celebrate together and create all of the communities that our students want and need.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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