Hillel JUC adapts as Israel-Hamas war continues
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Hillel JUC adapts as Israel-Hamas war continues

'More students are coming than before to find the basic needs of community and friendship'

Students create friendship and solidarity at Hillel JUC. (Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC)
Students create friendship and solidarity at Hillel JUC. (Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC)

With the war raging between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas, Hillel JUC has doubled down on its mission to be a hub of Jewish campus life — all while navigating new pressures, including increased security needs and heightened emotions.

“Since Oct. 7, the work of Hillel JUC has required adaptation,” the organization’s Executive Director and CEO Dan Marcus told the Chronicle.

As the Israel-Hamas war progressed, staff responsibilities and security needs grew for the Oakland-based organization.

“The care and support that the staff team at Hillel JUC has provided to our students has become even more vital,” Marcus said. “That listening and caring ear is even more crucial.”

Hillel JUC staffers typically engage with students through coffee dates, informal meetups and small group gatherings.

Students and parents shared that these get-togethers are appreciated, especially now, Marcus said.

Hillel JUC students visit Israel as part of a Campus Ambassadors program. (Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC)

Weeks ago, Inside Higher Ed reported that the Israel-Hamas war has generated “increased demand for counseling” among college students.

The finding comes on the heels of an epidemic.

The rates of loneliness among young adults “increased every year between 1976 and 2019,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. And, in 2021, young people were “almost twice as likely to report feeling lonely as those over the age of 65.”

“The Hillel JUC team knows their role is not to be mental health professionals but to be that listening and caring ear, and when necessary to guide students to the right mental health professionals and resources like the 10.27 Healing Partnership,” Marcus said.

“After Oct. 7, we’ve seen that students are more anxious, and rightfully so,” said Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “There have been protests in front of the building numerous times — things have escalated.”

A January visit to Hillel JUC by Yadin Gellman, an IDF veteran and Israeli actor, spurred “student and community protesters” to block traffic and chant outside the Hillel JUC building for approximately an hour, The Pitt News reported.

For the past seven months, Brokos has worked closely with Hillel JUC to ensure the organization safely achieves its mission of enriching the lives of Jewish students.

Ensuring students, staff and the building remain “as safe and secure as possible is a priority for us,” Brokos said.

Bolstering security has led to more than $40,000 in related costs, Marcus said.

Efrat, a Jewish Agency emissary in Pittsburgh who declined to share her last name, said the post-Oct. 7 toll is noticeable among Hillel JUC students and staff.

Members of the Jewish Learning Fellowship. (Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC)

Apart from increased security and communication about safety, various programs have undergone structural changes.

Cafe Ivrit, a social and educational program where participants drink coffee and practice Hebrew, was moved from nearby shops to the Hillel JUC building “for security purposes,” Efrat said.

Additionally, the tenor of Cafe Ivrit and other Hillel JUC offerings has changed.

“We had to adjust our educational programming to the situation and figure out a way to connect everything that is happening in Israel, to help students gain deeper understanding while creating a space for them to ask questions,” Efrat said.

The modifications are noticeable, University of Pittsburgh senior Yoni Preuss explained.

“Students are definitely searching for something different than before, which doesn’t necessarily change the mission, but it does change how the staff may go about creating programs,” he said.

Tweaks include new uses of Hillel JUC’s building.

“It was always a place to do work or meet, but I know personally I spend more time there now,” Preuss said.

The political science major said he finds himself and other students “spending more downtime with staff just chatting about life — hearing their perspectives on how we can grow as a community — and not just talking about programs.”

Creating connections between students and staff is “nothing new,” Marcus said, but the recent engagements bear a distinct quality.

“More students are coming than before to find the basic needs of community and friendship,” Preuss said. Hillel JUC staff “understand the emotional needs and are able to provide a sense of togetherness and relaxation at a time when campus life could be stressful.”

Programs often begin with a reminder that security is present and where to head in an emergency, Preuss said.

Students and staff recognize the realities, Efrat said: “We’ve had to transfer from a regular routine to a more urgent routine.”

Even so, campus activities, advocacy and trips to Israel are continuing.

“Hillel JUC will not deviate from the mission and vision — we will only redouble our efforts to create a vibrant and meaningful Jewish community — and will not let those who wish to demonize the Jewish people and Israel dictate our mission and vision,” Marcus said. “We will not shrink from the public square.”

Cloaked in Israeli flags, students showed support for Israel on Oct. 9 in Oakland. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Hillel International stresses the importance of that devotion.

“Students and families are turning to Hillel as the most comprehensive and reliable source of information and support for their child,” Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International, said in a statement.

“Our goal has always been to be the main resource for helping students grow and mature and think deeper. We are not supposed to know everything, but our mission as educators is to provide students a way to get there while shaping their personalities as they age throughout college,” Efrat said.

For Marcus and others, the past seven months reflect a mix of old and new at Hillel JUC.

“We are working more with Shawn Brokos, and the Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh police, who do extra patrols, come into our building periodically and check on us to make sure we are OK,” he said.

There is increased security, but for the students, the real change is elsewhere in the building.

“Students are more passionate than ever,” Preuss said, “and Hillel is able to provide a space for programs and activities to further our growth as students and people especially in the wake of Oct. 7.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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