Thanks to Hillel JUC, students are celebrating Shabbat — not at Hillel JUC, but elsewhere on campus — and the organization’s leaders are thrilled.
Last August, Hillel JUC started using Hillel Hub, a digital platform designed by Hillel International and OneTable. The easy-access site allows students to create a profile and then host or join a nearby Jewish gathering.
The beauty of Hillel Hub, explained Hillel JUC’s executive director and CEO Dan Marcus, is the “egalitarianism of leadership” that’s generated.
Previously, the onus of organizing a Shabbat meal, coffee meetup or dance night was usually on student leaders. Hillel Hub lowers the barrier for entry, allows for more inclusion and promotes increased “Jewish life on campus,” Marcus said.
Kari Exler, Hillel JUC’s assistant director, said Hillel Hub plays to campus trends established in the early days of COVID-19. Rather than coming together for larger programs, students created small functions and received support through “nourishment funds” from Hillel JUC.
Even before the pandemic, the model was championed by OneTable, a national nonprofit empowering young people to find and share Shabbat dinners.
Launched eight years ago, OneTable allows users to rely on the organization’s local staff and digital platform to create meaningful Shabbat meals. After registering on the site, young adults plan unique Jewish get-togethers and receive gift cards, Jewish cookbooks or other helpful items for executing a Shabbat experience. Since its founding, OneTable has supported more than 175,000 unique participants in 470 cities. Based on growth rates, the organization expects to surpass 250,000 users this year.
Hillel Hub operates similarly to the OneTable platform, thanks to a partnership between OneTable and Hillel International, Marcus said. As one of about 15 campus Hillels with access to a distinctive OneTable-powered site, Hillel JUC students benefit from a tremendous opportunity, he added.
University of Pittsburgh senior Lauren Meltzer told the Chronicle Hillel Hub has been a game-changer on campus.
There are about 19,000 undergrads at Pitt. Hillel Hub makes the community “a lot smaller and a lot easier to navigate,” she said.
Since August, Meltzer has used the platform to attend and host various events. In addition to a World Series watch party and Shabbat dinners, Meltzer used Hillel Hub to organize a joint Rosh Hashanah and birthday meal. When she decided to host 35 people, Meltzer turned to Exler for help.
“Kari sat with me in a coffee shop and helped me meal plan,” Meltzer said.
After three days of cooking and cleaning, Meltzer held a festive dinner for nearly three dozen people.
“It was the best night ever,” she said.
Meltzer said she would love to welcome guests every Shabbat, but there are considerable expenses involved.
Money from Hillel JUC helps offset that burden.
Based on this year’s budget, “we’ve been able to give hosts $10 per Jewish student for general experiences and $15 per Jewish student for Shabbat experiences,” Exler said. Funds are delivered through gift cards — often either to Giant Eagle or Tahini, a kosher food vendor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Both Marcus and Exler credited the Shapira Foundation with enabling the program’s success on campus. To date, there have been 57 student-hosted Shabbat experiences. More than 800 students were reached through Hillel Hub. And, Hillel JUC has even used the platform for hosting 23 Shabbat experiences of its own.
Although Hillel Hub is facilitating new types of student engagement, Exler knows there are those who long for traditional Hillel-hosted Shabbat meals, where hundreds of Jewish students congregate in a large room and eat together.
But those events aren’t reaching everyone, Exler said. Some students are “overwhelmed” by the idea of eating with 150-200 other people.
The platform is enabling Hillel JUC to meet students’ needs. However, Hillel Hub is also creating new demands on Hillel JUC staffers.
On busy days, Exler and her colleagues are helping students prepare for sometimes up to seven separate events. This isn’t a bad thing, Exler said: “We’re allowing students who weren’t connecting with us to find new ways to connect.” What’s great is that students are using the platform to “join experiences, host experiences for friends, welcome new communities or weave together different communities.”
Even events that occur miles away from Hillel JUC’s building still require significant organizational involvement.
Exler said she’s taught students how to set their tables, consider allergies, create a spirit of welcomeness and even figure out methods for discussing the week’s Torah portion in “a low-barrier way.”
All of these are life skills, Exler said. Once college ends, most people aren’t going to be invited out for holidays or be able to rely on a large organization each week. By facilitating Jewish experiences, Hillel Hub is helping people connect and prepare for a time when “Shabbat doesn’t come looking for them.”
The strength of the platform is that it’s reinforcing organizational ideals, she said.
“Our focus is people not programs,” Exler said. “Our work here is not to get students through our door; it’s to get students connected to Jewish life. So whether it’s on Forbes and Craig or in South Oakland, it’s Jewish life and it’s amazing.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.