Sephardic Jewry celebrated at Hillel JUC’s annual summit
IgniteHillel JUC

Sephardic Jewry celebrated at Hillel JUC’s annual summit

Deluxe dinner, Havdalah and cooking demonstration broaden students' cultural awareness

Julianna Asunction and Ariella Levy help with Ignite distribution. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC
Julianna Asunction and Ariella Levy help with Ignite distribution. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC

Hillel JUC students were given a taste of Jewish culture during a special Sephardic-themed Shabbaton last weekend, when hundreds of students enjoyed a deluxe Shabbat dinner to-go, Havdalah with Israeli maestro Yaniv Attar and a cooking demonstration with chef and author Hélène Jawhara Piñer.

The multifaceted program gave nearly 300 students a chance to “learn and celebrate their Judaism,” said Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s president and CEO.

In years past, the annual Ignite Summit has enabled students to circle around Shabbat tables, enjoy meals and hear from Jewish luminaries, including neuroscientist and actor Mayim Bialik and Israeli jewelry artist Ariel Tidhar. This year, even in the midst of the pandemic, “it was essential that we still had our annual Ignite Summit,” said Marcus. “It’s such a highlight of the year.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s summit was largely conducted online. Shabbat dinner and dessert were available for Friday afternoon pickup, but written materials related to Sephardic Jewish life, culture and migration were posted online. Havdalah and the cooking demonstration were also shared virtually.

Lauren Taylor shows what’s cooking. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC

Ariella Levy, a University of Pittsburgh sophomore, began planning the weekend’s activities in November. As a Hillel JUC Ignite intern, and a Sephardi House Fellow, Levy worked with staff from Hillel JUC and the American Sephardi Federation to ensure students from diverse backgrounds could better appreciate the history and nuances of Sephardic Jewry.

For many people on campus, there’s a misconception that Sephardic Jews reside solely in Israel or that “all Jews are white or from Europe,” said Levy. “There are Jews from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and it’s important to share their stories not only for diversity purposes but also for people to learn about their cultures.”

Danielle Kranjec, Hillel JUC’s outgoing senior Jewish educator, credited Levy with creating a multisensory experience authentically capturing Sephardic traditions.

Jamie Frame, a University of Pittsburgh senior, participated in the weekend with his roommates and friends. The five-person pod regularly celebrates Shabbat, but being able to do so with Sephardic overtones was a learning experience, explained Frame, who described himself as “coming from a very traditional, very Ashkenazi background.”

Zoe Levine holds fideos. Photo courtesy of Zoe Levine

Between watching Attar’s Havdalah service and partaking in Piñer’s cooking demonstration, Frame gained a new appreciation for Sephardic Jews generally, and some childhood friends in particular.

“We have a whole bunch of Sephardi community members at our synagogue back home in northern Virginia, but my interaction was always at synagogue,” he said. “I had heard how they lained Torah or led davening but had never seen them lead Havdalah or cooked with them.”

After following Piñer’s instructions on how to make fideos, Frame reached out to a Sephardic high school classmate and asked if he knew anything about the pasta dish.

“He was like, ‘Of course I know that. My mom makes a delicious one,’” said Frame.

Zoe Levine, a Chatham University senior, also participated in the cooking demonstration.

“I am Ashkenazi, not Sephardi, and it was really interesting to learn about another aspect of Judaism,” said Levine. “This is a part of my people’s culture.”

Having students appreciate that Judaism encompasses more than the Ashkenazi experience is part of a larger goal, explained Levy.

“My takeaway is to keep going — this was only one event,” said Levy. “I’d like to see Sephardic Judaism integrated into other events as well.”

Whether that means creating a Sephardic heritage group, including more Sephardic music at Hillel JUC events or encouraging the organization to offer a broader menu when it comes to its Shabbat to-go meals, Levy has several ideas moving forward.

“Of course it’s great to have an event that’s centered around Sephardic culture,” she said, “but there won’t be major changes until we have it incorporated into the events we already have.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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