“Several hundreds” of Pittsburgh area Jewish college students and young professionals are expected to observe the High Holy Days this year — on land and water.
The Hillel Jewish University Center is planning religious and social activities for the chagim on both surfaces.
Dan Marcus, the new Hillel JUC executive director is bullish about student participation in the chagim, partly because of the turnout he saw at last week’s orientation activities, including a morning brunch, at the Oakland-based center.
“We’re looking at numbers from this year to last year, and we’re already seeing an increase in just the first three to four days of participation in our orientation activities, which is gratifying,” said Marcus, who has been on the job for two weeks. “And we’re looking forward to Rosh Hashana and the High Holy Day program; we look forward and expect to see several hundred Jewish students participating in our dinners, services and discussion groups
“And we have a very interesting tashlich program,” he added.
That program, according to Assistant Director David Katz is to rent kayaks Downtown and to perform tashlich on the three rivers.
Katz was guardedly optimistic about the venture. “We tried to do this last year,” he said, “and we got rained out.
As for services area synagogues will be open to Hillel JUC students.
“It’s a policy of the synagogues that a student ID counts as a ticket for anyone that shows up and that’s been made very clear to us [by the congregations],” he said, “but we had over the summer an intern just contacting and being in touch with all the synagogues and putting the list together.”
Hillel JUC is organizing the students so they don’t have to attend the synagogue of their choice alone.
“They’re going to be meeting here [at the Hillel center] so that they can attend services whether it be at Rodef Shalom, Temple Sinai, Tree of Life, Beth Shalom, Share Torah, Poale Zedeck, Bet Tikva, Dor Hadash, everywhere. We’ll have a whole list of all the different synagogues and tickets and stuff and people will come and go as groups together, so that no one has to go by themselves.”
Additionally, Marcus has letters from congregations offering home hospitality to students who want it.
“The community is so warm and embraces the students to such an extent that it is part of their college experience,” he said.
But the Hillel center will be open as well.
“We aren’t necessarily having services in our building, but students will be meeting in the building,” Katz said. “The building will open at different times of the day for students to come have coffee, cake, apples, honey — that sort of stuff — as well as a number of meals throughout erev Rosh Hashana. [We’ll] also have that space open here for students to come, have informal discussion and play board games.”
On a related note, Katz said the Hillel center would be open Saturdays for student–led morning Shabbat minyans.
“They started doing it on monthly basis last year, and I think our goal is to up it,” he said. “We’ve only scheduled the first two as of right now, and the first one is actually going to be the Shabbat immediately after Rosh Hashana.
Students come together at 9:30 a.m. in the morning in our library to do a full Shabbat morning service. Following, we have all the necessary tools to provide them with cholent and schnitzel for Shabbat lunch.”
And he mentioned that students would again be baking challahs to sell on the campuses to support charities.
Challah for Hunger turns out 90 to 100 loaves a week, which are sold at student unions on Friday mornings. The proceeds support the American Jewish World Service and the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry.
“It’s not really about the challah, it’s about the peoplehood that is formed amongst them in the kitchen,” Katz said. “And it’s also about Hillel being able to create a space to have that conversation about what does it mean to give tzedaka and what does it mean to do tikkun olam.”
Marcus said activities such as challah baking reflect the “sustained support to our student leadership” he expects Hillel JUC to offer its participants.
He wants the center to provide training and resources to potential student leaders, so they, in turn, can reach out other Jewish students on Pittsburgh campuses.
“We’re the perfect incubator for identifying and training leaders because we have these great talented students,” Marcus said. “I see our responsibility is to give them the framework and thinking to say, what types of identities and students are on our campuses and how do we create communities for those students?
“For me that’s a key objective,” he added. “I think we’re now in a great place to be able to stay, whether a student is interested in social justice, Israel, cooking, sports, movies, culture, history, we now have, thanks to the building blocks of the last 10 years, the ability to give the resources and direction to students that they feel empowered to then reach out and meet the needs all the different types of Jewish students on our campuses; that for me is really our focus and objective.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)