Jewish groups on campus collaborate to expand engagement
CollegeWorking together for students

Jewish groups on campus collaborate to expand engagement

Partnership between Chabad on Campus and Hillel JUC models beneficial Jewish life

College students are all smiles before enjoying an evening of matzah with 400 friends. Photo courtesy of Chabad on Campus
College students are all smiles before enjoying an evening of matzah with 400 friends. Photo courtesy of Chabad on Campus

Two groups on campus are working together to enrich Jewish life. This Rosh Hashanah, Hillel JUC and Chabad on Campus are collaborating on a dinner that’s expected to welcome more than 300 students.

The event, Hillel JUC’s executive director and CEO Dan Marcus said, is a demonstration of how to “create a Jewish student community in a way that is supportive to all Jewish students.”

Weeks later, Hillel and Chabad will partner again on two holiday dinners inside a sukkah that can fit more than 100 people.

The fall festivities perfectly embody the relationship between the two organizations, Chabad’s co-director Sara Weinstein said.

Sukkot’s key items include the arba minim (four species): lulav (palm branch); aravot (willows); hadassim (myrtles); and etrog (citron). A special blessing is recited when holding the four pieces together.

Each element of the arba minim represents a different type of Jewish person, “and we want them all to come together,” Weinstein said.

The philosophy carries beyond Sukkot. In commemoration of five years since the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Chabad and Hillel will again partner. Months later, in honor of Passover, the two organizations will host a joint seder.

Repeated cooperation runs contrary to an assumption that two distinct entities — with disparate philosophies, unique needs and specific desires to support their own efforts — would adopt an aggressive winner-take-all approach to recruiting and retaining students.

“I experienced that as a student,” Kari Exler, Hillel’s assistant director, said. “I went to a school with not many Jews, where we felt that pull between going to Hillel and going to Chabad.”

Conversations often concerned, “What’s the difference between the two, where are my friends going, how does this align with my values and how are my values shifting,” she said. “I felt that — and it’s not a bad thing — but there’s enough going on as a Jewish student instead of needing to be pulled between two different organizations.”

Rabbi Shmuli Rothstein, co-director of Chabad at Pitt, said, “Whatever interorganizational politics people believe should exist, or not exist, why should a student be in the middle of that? We are all here for the same goals: to bring vibrant Jewish life to campus.”

It’s imperative to remember a core Jewish teaching, Rothstein said. “The Temple was destroyed because of sinat chiman (baseless hatred), and it’s going to be rebuilt because of ahavat chinam (love of others) — that requires loving people whether they agree or disagree with me.”

Students enjoy a joint Sukkah party between Chabad on Campus and Hillel JUC. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC

Weinstein has served as Chabad’s co-director for almost 35 years. Chabad’s relationship with Hillel, she said, has had “its ebbs and flows.” Still, “when there are bumps along the road we talk about it so we can do better.”

There’s a deep commitment, on both sides, to having students “feel like they have choices,” she said. Doing so, and creating trust, requires a “willingness on everyone’s part.”

The organizations both maintain kosher practices. One difference between Chabad and Hillel, however, is each group’s approach to prayer. Chabad holds one type of service, regardless of students’ denominations; Hillel supports various minyanim catering to different denominations.

When Hillel and Chabad combine, there are times when “I have to give up my own ownership of something, but that’s OK because what we really want is for the students to feel that they have ownership,” Weinstein said.

Empowering young people to see choices in Jewish life sometimes results in students shifting their involvement from one organization to another. The exchange is a welcome reminder of why campus professionals are committed to the next generation of Jews, according to Rothstein.

“People connect in different ways,” he said. “If someone comes to Chabad and doesn’t find the community they are looking for, why should they lose out on finding a vibrant Jewish community?”

The partnership between Chabad and Hillel, Exler said, “is one of the biggest blessings I have at this job.”

She described conversations with colleagues on other campuses about territorial and other challenges when seeking Jewish student engagement.

If there’s a problem here, “I just call our campus rabbi from CMU or Pitt, and we work it out together,” she said. “The internal communication and respect for one another allows us to demonstrate the external relationship and respect in a way that our students see and feel on campus.”

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

Marcus said that “modeling for students how to collaborate, be in partnership and share resources is part of the DNA of the Pittsburgh community.”

“The culture and nature of the Pittsburgh community is to be caring and supportive of each other, and to find opportunities for collaboration when possible,” he added.

In the coming months, apart from joint holiday gatherings, Hillel and Chabad are looking to increase their mutual support of Jewish Greek life in Oakland. The organizations are also hoping to bring student leaders together for training, discussions about events and opportunities to learn from each other’s approaches, Exler said.

“Though it may be surprising, or seem unique, the depth and nature of the relationship of the partnership is something we are very proud of,” Marcus said.

Shortly after Rosh Hashanah, Chabad and Hillel will follow their typical practice of sharing sign-up lists. The information will be used by the organizations individually and collectively to plan future programs.

The outcome, Rothstein said, is mutually beneficial: “When the tide rises, all the ships rise.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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