Hillel at 100: Meeting students at different points along their Jewish journeys

Hillel at 100: Meeting students at different points along their Jewish journeys

Mar 2023 | Jewish Peoplehood

Hillel—the largest and most inclusive Jewish campus organization in the world—celebrates its centennial in 2023. Hillel provides a sense of Jewish connection and community to 140,000 college students and young alumni in 16 countries. Programming nurtures mind, body, and spirit, from social activities and Judaic studies (both classical and contemporary)  to holiday gatherings and life milestones.

As we like to say, there are many ways to be Jewish, do Jewish, and feel Jewish. Koret funding supports diverse programming at seven Hillels in our region, as well as helping to attract and retain forward-thinking professional staff—who in turn develop programs and student mentorship opportunities that support the particular needs of their respective communities. Rabbi Maya Zinkow is the senior Jewish educator at Berkeley Hillel. She comments, “Hillels engage a lot of students who are seeking foundational Jewish knowledge as they navigate identity in their college years. Whether they grew up in a Jewish community, grew up with a vague sense of Jewishness, or are connecting to a Jewish identity for the first time, these students are eager to learn the fundamentals of our people and practice.” By supporting Hillels, the Koret Foundation is investing in the next generation of Bay Area Jewish leaders.

Hillel’s core values and priorities are constants, including serving as a refuge from increased antisemitism on campus, where students encounter anti-Israel sentiment, Holocaust denial, exclusionary attitudes, and hateful incidents. Hillel not only gives Jewish students a sense of belonging, but also helps them gain the confidence to be spokespeople, to constructively counter antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment. 

Hillel celebrations of Jewish holidays and traditions vibrantly reflect the students’ interests and creativity. Now that pandemic restrictions have eased and in-person learning and gatherings are flourishing again, Hillels are eager to re-establish opportunities where students can express themselves, enjoy themselves, and explore their Jewish identities with their “tribe.” Here are glimpses into distinctive programming at several Hillels around the Bay, customized for (and by) the various campus communities.

Chico Hillel students on a leadership retreat.
San Francisco Hillel students share music in the sukkah.
Berkeley Hillel students get animated discussing Jewish traditions.
SF Hillel Bagel Club gathers on the lawn.
Students at Santa Cruz Hillel show off their t-shirts that say "Santa Cruz" in Hebrew.
Stanford Hillel's Israeli community gathers with the full family to celebrate holidays.


Stanford University has a significant number of Jewish undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students. Among them are close to 200 Israeli students and their families, for whom Stanford becomes home for a period of years. Hillel at Stanford’s Israeli@Stanford program serves as their bridge to the North American Jewish community and a connection to other Israelis. Rotem Saar, who moved from Israel to the Bay Area in 2015 with her husband Ron and their two children, established the Israelis@Stanford platform to create a home-away-from-home community of support and social interaction—including nurturing Israeli community traditions. Rotem has joined the Hillel at Stanford staff as the community engagement manager for Israeli@Stanford.

Dana Vertsberger (pictured right), who recently finished a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford, describes the benefits of participating in Israeli@Stanford. “It has been a way to build a community with people who share my values and beliefs. Leaving Israel was hard, and Hillel helped my family and me feel included and not isolated. In addition, I have three children, and Hillel helps me connect my children with Jewish values, something that would have been very difficult to do independently. Through Hillel, my children, who attend public schools in Palo Alto, learn about their Jewish heritage, values, and special days, and can celebrate with other Jewish children.” 


Fellowship, scholarship, and civic engagement

At Berkeley Hillel, Rabbi Maya Zinkow, widely known as Rav Maya, serves as the organization’s senior Jewish educator. She particularly enjoys overseeing all of Berkeley’s Jewish Learning Fellowships, which are multi-week, or even semester-long, explorations in a group setting. Each semester, the JLFs may vary in response to student interest. Rav Maya has developed a fellowship called Foundations of Judaism, which she describes as “providing students with a safe space to bring questions they’ve always wanted to ask but never had the space to, or the rabbi. We seek to empower students with foundational concepts so that they may continue on their Jewish learning journey girded with more tools of meaning-making.” She acknowledges, “For some fellows, this class is the first time they are encountering the Aleph- Bet (Hebrew alphabet), the books that make up Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), or the Jewish calendar. For others, they are contextualizing and deepening their knowledge of Shabbat, Jewish prayer, and life cycles.”

Avital Raff recently joined  the Berkeley Hillel team as the director of social action and community engagement. She has developed a multi-topic cohort titled Judaism, spirituality, and social justice, designed to give students “an opportunity to explore how Jewish leadership, wisdom, and ritual can be resources and assets to them in the struggle for social issues that they care about.” Topics to be explored include housing justice, environmental organizing, and interfaith civic engagement—“with a specific focus on how we as Jews can show up in the landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Developing Jewish identity in a rural region

Sophomore Gil Klein-Cohen (pictured left), who’d grown up in Palo Alto, found Chico Hillel at the very beginning of his freshman year. He recalls, “I was immediately drawn to the welcoming atmosphere at Hillel. I met the director, Kristy, within the first few hours of arriving on campus, and I soon formed close friendships with other members of the community through Hillel-sponsored events and classes, as well as weekend retreats. The positive impact led me to take advantage of every opportunity to get involved, including a paid internship at Hillel during my second semester, staff training in St. Louis, and a trip to Lassen National Park.” 

Executive director Kristy Collins puts Gil’s experience in context. “My focus has been on empowering student leaders, identifying team strengths, and creating a fun environment in which students grow socially, emotionally and professionally. Over the past year, Chico Hillel has been engaging with a new population of Jewish students in the mainstream sectors of Greek Life. They are using elements of Design Theory to learn more about the interests and needs of social sororities and fraternities, smashing stereotypes and offering alternative programming. Our level of student engagement has almost doubled.”

Gil is now the president of Chico Hillel and committed to “maintaining Hillel’s positive culture of inclusiveness and good vibes. In the wider Chico community, I hope to raise awareness about anti-Semitism and educate others about Jewish culture.” He adds, “I would also like to bring attention to lesser-known holidays such as Tu Bishvat, with fun activities like food tastings and a tree planting workshop.”

Adding local flavor and school spirit to Israel Fest

Every spring, Santa Cruz Hillel hosts Israel Fest, a week of Israel-related activities bracketing Israeli Independence Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day. During the week, programming includes movies, guest speakers, crafts, discussions—and of course Israeli food. Most participants are students, though faculty and staff often stop by. Israeli Independence Day is  celebrated with a shuk (open-air market) on campus, featuring music, hands-on activities, and swag that appeals to Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, with a bissele of Hebrew and a lot of humor. In 2022, Santa Cruz Hillel t-shirts were modeled after the ubiquitous Santa Cruz skate shirt, but with Santa Cruz written in Hebrew. A new tradition! Stickers were abundant, with phrases such as Chai Maintenance and Watermelon Sugar Chai—and a banana slug (the Santa Cruz mascot) sporting a tallit. Swag bags showed the Israeli flag and names of cities in Israel.

During the pandemic, Israel Fest went online. Virtual events included a Yom HaShoah discussion with local Holocaust survivors to hear their stories and ask questions, a cooking class to make Israeli chocolate balls (all ingredients were sent ahead of time to students who RSVP’d), a conversation with Israeli women in STEM careers, and a talk by Jack Steinberg, who shared the story of his brother Max, a fallen lone soldier who had fought in Operation Protective Edge. An Israel-themed Shabbat dinner, held outdoors, was a highlight. Daylen Degelsmith, associate executive director and director of student life, comments, “The virtual programs were well attended, but we have found that our students prefer to do things in person. Now that it is safer to meet in person, we have discontinued all of our virtual programming.”

Nurturing student leaders

SF Hillel is a multi-campus organization, serving several schools across the city. Design Tribe is SF Hillel’s leadership development program, a vehicle for deep engagement with Jewish students across San Francisco. Emily Simons, associate director of community engagement, elaborates, “Each Design Tribe student leader is paired with a mentor from our professional team, who invests in them through professional development, growth coaching, and mentorship, customized to each student based on their needs and interests.” Each student works with their mentor to create programs for their Hillel community in line with their individual passions and their peers’ interests. She offers this example: “Seniors in Design Tribe often use their mentorship meetings for career preparation, whereas freshmen come seeking opportunities to grow themselves—at Hillel and at school—and seek coaching on how to build connections with other students on campus.”

Design Tribe includes students from all the SF Hillel campuses, and they come together once or twice a year for retreats. The Design Tribe model grew out of a year-long design-thinking process completed in 2017 by the SF Hillel professional team in partnership with the Jewish Design Initiative (now Organizational Design Lab). The model is student-centric and fluid. Emily reflects, “When Design Tribe was first created, students joined a track, like Israel Track or Engagement Track, and their mentorship was specific to their track and goals. With the transition from Millennials to Gen Z, our professionals have found that the current generation of students needs a different approach. They are less interested in a single program focus all year, and instead want to experience all of the different avenues that SF Hillel has to offer. Design Tribe will continue to evolve, as students create programs and initiatives across various aspects of our Hillel.”