With hundreds of clubs and organizations on campus, it can be easy to overlook some of them. Tucked away in the northeast corner of campus, UConn Hillel may be one of those organizations that you’ve never been exposed to. Hillel is UConn’s center for Jewish life on campus, but is open to all people regardless of religion. Student leaders and staff have worked hard to create a welcoming and friendly environment that all students can enjoy. Hillel also organizes several events throughout the semester including a weekly Shabbat.
According to their website, Hillel aims to provide religious, cultural, political, educational and social opportunities for almost 2,000 Jewish students as well as the community as a whole.
UConn Hillel is a branch of Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world. There are 550 colleges and universities in North America where Hillel is active. Hillels operate in 20 different time zones on four different continents.
“Hillel is basically just a space on campus where people can come throughout the day to do homework and study or just hang out. We are a Jewish organization so we do also have Jewish programming,” fourth-semester elementary education major Kylie Schectman said. “There is a Jewish aspect but a lot of people who aren’t Jewish are also involved. It’s just a really big community.”
Schectman is currently the vice president of programming on the student executive board for Hillel–this basically means that she is in charge of planning Hillel’s events for the semester. In the fall, Hillel’s big event is “The Hummus Experience,” which is a chopped-style cooking competition in which student teams compete to make the best hummus with the ingredients they’re given. The hummus is critiqued by a panel of judges and a winner is announced.
In the spring, Hillel’s big event is “Mr. NJB,” which stands for Mr. Nice Jewish Boy. “Mr. NJB” is a beauty pageant-style competition that students can participate in. The competition includes a talent portion and Q&A portion.
There are several other events throughout the year including barbecues, movie nights, open-mic nights and more. Hillel recently celebrated Israel’s 70th birthday with Israel Week, which included several cultural, religious and community service-oriented events to commemorate Israel’s democracy.
In addition to the student executive board, Hillel is also operated by a board of directors made up of alumni, people living in the area and donors. The club Huskies for Israel is also a part of Hillel.
There is no technical “membership” at Hillel–all events are open to anyone.
“Before coming to UConn I wasn’t that involved with Judaism at home, so when I came here I was kind of intimidated by the religious aspect of things, but my friend got me to come to the welcome back barbecue,” Schectman said. “I immediately saw that everyone here was super welcoming and relaxed. I started dipping my toes in slowly and now Hillel feels like a second home to me.”
UConn Hillel also offers a birthright trip to Israel for Jewish students. For no cost, students can enroll in the 10-day Taglit-Birthright trip over the summer that allows them to learn more about the history and culture of Israel and connect to their roots.
Students involved with Hillel are very dedicated and find the building to be a home away from home. At any time of the day you can find students doing homework together, hanging out, getting food or participating in one of Hillel’s many social or cultural events. The building itself is very welcoming. The moment you walk in you are greeted by friendly faces and can treat yourself to the snacks and drinks in the lobby. There’s a firepit and patio in the back and it even has a finished basement with games, couches and a TV.
“It’s been a great way to meet the people that are now my closest friends and it’s a really nice community,” said second-semester MEM major Brandon Milich, who is vice president of first year students of Hillel.
“Shabbat dinners every Friday night are special to me because it’s a time for the community to get together and eat, relax and have a good time,” Schectman said. “I feel so comfortable here, and I know that there’s always a friend here that I can go to and talk to. I feel really accepted for who I am.”
It’s clear that each student within Hillel has worked hard to create a tight-knit community and loves being a part of the organization. Even after graduating, many students find a way to stay involved and connected
“When I first campus-changed here everyone knew who I was because my brother was here and it was really welcoming,” sixth-semester molecular and cell biology major and vice president of finance Eidan Avner said. “I came in and felt like I belonged here right away.”
“My favorite memory was planning the board retreat this past fall. I was the development intern this summer, so I helped with a lot of administrative work and I did a lot of work with planning with alumni, but I also got to help plan the student board leadership retreat, and what I liked most about that was getting to do hands-on work and teaching younger leaders how to develop engagement skills and really show them the ropes,” Emma Strumpf, an eighth-semester history major and former Hillel president, said.
“Each year a new set of people come in and the building always changes and it’s different every time. Seeing how you can make an impact and being able to leave an impact on younger students and helping them find their way is amazing,” Strumpf continued.
After graduating in May, Strumpf will continue working for Hillel and move to Albany, New York, to work at University of Albany Hillel.
“What I think is so special about UConn Hillel is that we don’t try to push what we want on you,” Strumpf said. “You tell us what you want and we’ll make it happen.”
Melissa Scrivani is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.