So much of college is predicated on caffeine and camaraderie that a recent pairing of the two seems about as sweet as a caramel macchiato between friends. Several months ago, Starbucks employees at 4022 Fifth Ave. in Oakland began placing a chalk-written sign on one of the tables: “This table is reserved for our friends at Hillel 10 a.m.-4 p.m.”
“Hillel brings a lot of students into Starbucks, and because they bring in so much business, my boss decided they should have their own table to have their own space to meet, instead of having to fight for space to meet in such a busy area,” said Polina Neft, a Starbucks barista.
Prior to the sign’s placement, Ariel Walovitch, Hillel JUC’s director of engagement, was regularly meeting with students and colleagues at various tables in the shop.
“It’s very funny because I always refer to that Starbucks as my office,” she said. The manager “noticed what we were doing and wanted to support us and create that safe space for the Jewish students.”
“Starbucks as a company encourages us to make it a safe space for all sorts of people from all walks of life. Ariel and her team are there a lot so it occured to me to give them a space to do what they do,” said Nick Drop, the store’s manager.
This decision by Starbucks “was really meaningful to me,” said Leah Belman, a University of Pittsburgh student. “I was really touched by how welcoming Starbucks is to the Jewish community and Jewish students.”
The dedicated table also made life easier for Belman, who apart from studying supply chain management and marketing is a campus engagement intern with Hillel JUC.
“I try to bring uninvolved Jewish students into the Jewish community on campus,” said the University of Pittsburgh junior. “One of the huge ways that I do my job is taking out freshmen on coffee dates.”
Per the program’s design, Belman is given a Starbucks gift card from Hillel JUC.
“We’re able to take out the students in a casual way, face to face, and neither of us has to worry about paying, and we can talk about classes or what’s happening on campus,” said Belman. “A lot of the time we just catch up. Being college students, it’s nice to be able to get together and talk.”
Belman visits the the Amos Hall Starbucks on Fifth Avenue about twice a week, and said the table is almost always occupied by either Walovitch or other Jewish students.
“The sign says 10 to 4 but they’re pretty much there from 10:30 in the morning until maybe 8 at night, and it’s not just people who work at Hillel but students who are engaged at Hillel sit there too,” said Neft.
“The Hillel table at Starbucks epitomizes one of the key values of our Hillel: being present at the right space in the right place at the right time to meet students’ needs,” said Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director and CEO.
There is a lot of programming that occurs in Hillel JUC’s building, but the table “feels like so much of a safe space, where you are accepted as part of the Hillel community but you’re not actually at Hillel,” said Belman.
“What’s also really special about it is that I have met so many new Jewish students at that table that I wouldn’t have met otherwise because they see me sitting at the Hillel Starbucks table with the sign saying ‘Reserved for Jewish students’ and then (I get) asked about Hillel, and asked what it is, and I get to know them, which is really cool,” said Walovitch.
Drop, who isn’t Jewish, is happy that the area is achieving its purpose.
“Part of the reason why this was important to me was when I was in college at CCAC I had a professor who was Jewish and she opened her doors to me and other students, and she would teach us an act of Shakespeare every single week at her home in Squirrel Hill,” he said. “She was actually born in Hungary and ran around in World War II and has some really dark memories from back then. Her story and her travels hit me in a soft spot. For me to be able to do this at my level was really meaningful.”
Walovitch is grateful to Drop and Starbucks for their willingness to bolster a community. Since September, she’s met with approximately 300 students there. The irony of the klatch, however, is in the ordering, explained Walovitch.
“I meet with so many students throughout the day, I typically just get water or decaf,” she said. “Because I’m very energetic, I stay away from the caffeine.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.