“New York, Boston, or bust!” When I began looking for colleges, I never really considered Georgia schools despite having grown up in Atlanta. As the son of Jewish immigrants, it seemed that only colleges far from the south, in cities with historic Jewish connections, offered an environment where I could feel comfortable with my Judaism, explore it, and grow. Following that logic and being largely out of the loop when it came to Atlanta’s own Jewish world, I left for colder weather. There I stayed for eight years.
That is, until I got the chance to return home to work with Hillels of Georgia as the Kennesaw State University (KSU) Hillel Director. It’s been a year since I made Atlanta my home again and KSU Hillel my day to day, and you know what I can say? For Jewish students in GA there‘s a great Jewish community right in your own backyard— Kennesaw State University!
KSU Hillel closed the books this semester with a record number of new, engaged Jewish student members, dozens of programs run, and big plans to build on that momentum next term. That’s not how we started off in August. Sure, we knew there were tons of Jews on campus, but most were anonymous. What we had for sure were three committed student leaders and big dreams. And through dedication, zealous drive, and passion, KSU Hillel skyrocketed and proudly engaged more students than anyone anticipated in one semester — all thirsty for a Jewish connection despite the COVID-19 obstacle.
Dedication — what a word! Funny that when we celebrate Hanukkah, the word itself literally meaning “to dedicate.” KSU Hillel students come from all over with vastly different backgrounds, but dedication is one thing they have in common. Our Hillel is the “make your own adventure” sort of place, where a student’s idea goes from a program to a weekly event in no time! Where we think big and make it happen! It’s all done through equal parts enthusiasm, resourcefulness, creativity, and dedication. KSU students are actively shaping their Jewish home away from home, and they want the whole Atlanta community to know that “if you’re a Jewish student, you’ll find your place here.”
We began with our eager group of three undergraduate students, a single bagel break program, and the attention and zealous support of the larger Hillels of Georgia system. These students had a vision of revamping their KSU “brand” and building Jewish life even amidst the pandemic. Just because classes were remote didn’t mean the need for community vanished. What did they want to see for their community? Weekly Jewish learning experiences, social programming, movies in the park, leadership retreats, Israel activism, and more. Some were possible during the weird time, others not so much, but Hillels of Georgia said to run with it so long as it was COVID–safe. And we did!
One coffee date after another, some friend–to-friend outreach, and we learned the names of dozens of Jewish students and invited them to create a special space tailored to their interests. Do you like to run? Cool, let’s start a running club! Maybe theatre? Community Service? Philanthropy? Let’s build the program! Each month saw dozens of novel programs come to fruition, more and more students seeking excitement and connection in the pandemic. Our weekly bagel breaks became moments for our student leaders to challenge attendees to offer what they wanted to see from Hillel. They introduced themselves to every new face they saw at every event, created programming lists, worked long hours into the night with me on our year-long programming strategies, and effectively built their Jewish home on campus from scratch.
Of course, this rise didn’t go unnoticed by the university administration or our community partners. Our students have gratefully hosted President Pamela Whitten for a Thursday brunch, Elliot Karp, CEO of Hillels of Georgia, for a running club run, and Vice President Eric Arneson for a Holocaust remembrance daffodil planting. Imagine all that after only a few months!It all comes back to dedication.
Fast forward to 2020, how far have we come? Well, welcome to a place where around 200 students know we’re here for them. Hillel is a place where our programs see anywhere from small cohorts to dozens of new friends all at once (socially distanced, of course), where every student, freshmen or senior, is a leader with a voice in our programming. KSU Hillel is where former couch potatoes can become runners, where any student can learn deeply about Jewish thought, study Hebrew, go to Israel, network with Atlanta professionals, or get to know students across every Georgia campus. Welcome to a place for KSU’s Jewish students to call a home away from home.And we’re just getting started!