Like so many in the Jewish organizational world, I sought out a profession that was focused on building Jewish identity. As a Jewish millennial, I wanted a career that would not only put food on the table, but would also be meaningful for me. While many of my doctor and lawyer friends add purpose to their calling through probono work and philanthropy, I wanted my profession to be focused on the good I can do for my people. With this in mind, I chose to work for Hillel and take on the challenge of engaging Jewish college students. I’d worked with pre-college students before, as a rabbi at a synagogue, and with countless Jewish non-profits, so to me it’s clear — if you want to mold and impact the future of the Jewish people, your one-stop shop is Hillel.
Hillel is solely focused on ensuring that our Jewish college students care about the Jewish people and self-identify with the Jewish people’s fate. Our mission aligns squarely with Federation’s continuity and Jewish identity goals, so we’re grateful for Federation’s support and proud to be an affiliate agency. As the outreach army to hundreds of college students in Georgia who are on their own for the first time and questioning everything, we know it requires uncommon creativity and persistence to engage 18-22-year-olds.
How do we do it? Hillels of Georgia, for example, carries out an average of 13 programs a week during the academic semester. Some of these programs are Shabbat-based; others are focused on Israel; and others are just an excuse for getting Jewish students together on campus. You see, Hillel is not a religious organization, and does not particularly care if a student believes in God or ever does another mitzvah. We care about identity. So, whatever Jewish program encourages or persuades a student to feel more a part of the Jewish people, we pour our passion and resources into that program.
Hillel as an organization enjoys two strong beliefs — first, every Jew is an important part of the future of the Jewish people. Accordingly, Hillel makes it a point to reach out at least once a semester to every Jewish student on campus of whom we are aware. Our second belief is that if a student does Jewish things while s/he’s on campus, that student is infinitely more likely to join a Jewish community upon graduation, thus guaranteeing another generation of strong Jewish communities. We are there for students when their identities are most in flux, to keep Judaism a key part of their identity. For these reasons, I do not believe there is another organization in the world that does more to ensure the Jewish people’s future.
Rabbi Russ Shulkes is Executive Director, Hillels of Georgia