The start of summer means another cohort of talented college students have arrived at the Schusterman International Center in Washington to start internships at Hillel International. Each intern has a unique Jewish journey, as told to communications intern Paige Gutter.
Here are their stories:
Jamie Gottlieb, American University ‘20 (Conference and Events)
Jamie wasn’t a typical Jewish teenager—she genuinely enjoyed religious school while growing up in Cherry Hill, N.J. She appreciated learning about prayer on both a spiritual and intellectual level. With prayer study, “there was always more to ask questions about and learn…I think religion is one of the most interesting things.” When she reached high school, she realized she wanted more from Judaism than the academic, scholarly component—she wanted a social life. In high school she became an active member of both BBYO and NFTY. There was even a period when she simultaneously served as president of both of her chapters. Jamie’s fascination with Judaism led her to enroll in Gratz College while still in high school. She earned her Reform Judaic teaching certificate, and she eventually tutored first through seventh graders in Hebrew language and prayer.
Jamie started college at American University in August 2016, and she had already declared a Jewish studies major prior to the beginning of classes. She knew American University Hillel would supplement her Judaic studies with “fun Jewish programming.” She has served as a member of the Jewish Student Association and the religious and cultural education vice president for American University Hillel. During her time at AU, Jamie has also taught religious school at Tifereth Congregation in Silver Spring, Md., and has worked for the Adas Israel Community Mikvah where, among other roles, she facilitated educational programming for Hebrew schools.
Jamie aspires to attend rabbinical school someday, but is also interested in working for progressive Jewish nonprofits—like Hillel International. “I think Hillel is really on the forward of where the Jewish world is going, and the type of programming they do is leaning towards what people who are my age want.”
Paige Gutter, Miami University ‘19 (Communications)
Paige was born and raised in a Columbus, Ohio suburb where she could name six synagogues of different denominations within a 10-mile radius of her home. The social, communal feel of Judaism has played a major role in Paige’s upbringing. Paige attended Camp Livingston, a Jewish summer camp, for 10 consecutive summers. Paige said her best friends to this day are the ones she first met there. “Even throughout high school and college, my best friends have always been the people I met at camp when I was younger.
"There is something special about our bond, and I truthfully think it’s due to the Jewish values we learned and acted upon each summer.”
Paige is a rising senior at Miami University of Ohio and has served as a member of the programming committee and an engagement intern for the Hillel Foundation and Miami University. Her passion for Hillel’s mission strengthened over the course of her freshman and sophomore years, and she served as the summer communications intern for Hillel International in 2017. She said she found a great mentor and team at Hillel International, and felt like she really fit in, so she decided to return for another summer. “If someone were to have asked me what my career goals were in high school or the beginning of college, the answer would never have included the Jewish professional world.
"But after working for Hillel last summer and genuinely being excited to go to the office each day to work on the organization’s mission, I rethought what direction I wanted my life to go.”
Josh Hare, American University ‘19 (Strategy and Measurement)
Josh grew up in Middletown, N.J., and did not engage much with religion until he first went to URJ Camp Harlem when he was 11. Josh was a happy camper. He was content to swim in the lake like the other kids, until he discovered a new passion—song leading. After he returned home, Josh immediately began teaching himself to play guitar. With practice, he began to lead Friday night services at his Reform synagogue.
When Josh arrived at American University Hillel in August 2015, he found out his reputation as a song leader preceded him. After agreeing to lead services a few times, he became a full-time Shabbat intern. He is now taking on a new role as Shabbat innovation intern, which tries “to build on that innovative aspect of changing Shabbat from just services and dinner, to something that is a lot more engaging…a lot more energetic and keeps people thinking and interested.”
Sara Heckelman, University of Maryland ’21 (Digital Marketing)
Sara jokes that her whole life has revolved around having a Jewish education year-round—she attended a Jewish pre-school, Jewish day-school for 13 years and Jewish summer camps. But by the time she reached Camp Ramah in New England at 10-years-old, she realized that up until that point, Judaism was a dish someone else was serving to her. “I personally stepped out of my family’s definition of Judaism and defined my own… [Judaism] started manifesting itself into friendships…in singing, dancing and art.”
When she arrived at the University of Maryland Hillel, she found a new Jewish home. Sara keeps kosher in college, and she’s still singing and dancing as a member of Rak Shalom, a national championship-winning Jewish a cappella group sponsored by Hillel. As a member of this close-knit a cappella group, she has met friends to go to meals with at Hillel, which has led her to visit Hillel during the week and not just Shabbat.
Sara is also involved in Tamid, a business club in which students get experience working with Israeli start-ups. “I’m able to see Israel in a new way through this club…I’m seeing it in a way that isn’t just religiously connected and that’s really cool.”
Michelle Kaplin, Pennsylvania State University ’20 (Strategy and Measurement)
Michelle Kaplin grew up in a Buffalo Grove, Ill., and attended an ultra-Orthodox synagogue from pre-school until she was 12. But after her bat mitzvah, she began to feel as though she was born into a culture that was much different from the lifestyle she wanted to lead. She threw her hands in the air and “stopped everything” related to Judaism.
Michelle wasn’t very involved in the Jewish community in high school and planned to keep it that way when she started college at Pennsylvania State University. However, she felt homesick her freshman year, even contemplating transferring schools. That’s when she realized she missed Jewish culture and community.
At an involvement fair toward the end of her first semester, Michelle was introduced to the Springboard Fellow at Penn State Hillel, who grew up in the same Chicago suburb as she. To her surprise, the two hit it off and she thought, “OK, if she likes [Hillel], then I must like it too.” The fellow then encouraged her to participate in the Jewish Leaders Fellowship, which she did, and she later served as an engagement intern and participated in an Alternative Spring Break to Roatán, Honduras. Michelle said Hillel is a place she is comfortable practicing Judaism at her own pace and as she sees fit—a feeling she wasn’t sure she would find.
Maddie Schaeffer, University of Maryland ’19 (Development)
Maddie’s grandparents died when she was young, and her father’s way to cope with his parents’ death was to dive “full force” into Judaism. As she grew up, some religious rules were stricter than others—like attending Shabbat dinner each week. To avoid missing out on Friday night plans with peers and still abide by her home rules, she used to invite her friends over for Shabbat dinner with her family. Since attending college, Maddie has seen history repeat itself as she sometimes brings her non-Jewish friends from school to the University of Maryland Hillel with her on Friday nights to continue her personal weekly tradition.
Maddie said her religious observance level has lessened throughout the course of her college career, but said she still keeps kosher, eats a Shabbat dinner each week and is involved in the Jewish community on campus—which for her is mostly Hillel. Specifically, Maddie has found the Alternative Spring Breaks she spent in Guatemala and South Carolina to be the highlights of her involvement with the organization. “You don’t get to choose who you’re going with, you’re learning about new things, you’re meeting people from all different observance levels, you really get to know the staff members, and it’s [nice to see] new people every time you walk into Hillel [afterwards].”
Kaylie Wray, George Mason University ‘19 (Conference and Events)
Growing up in Richmond, Va., Judaism was an integral part of Kaylie's identity and it set her apart from most of the community. Other than her cousins, she only knew of one other person who was Jewish in her hometown. She recalls her family observing Yom Kippur, Hannukah and Passover, and she felt unique because she didn’t know anyone else who celebrated those holidays. “Judaism was interesting to try to explain to people for sure.”
Kaylie saw a Hillel International booth at her school’s career fair last spring. Despite being interested in Hillel International’s conference and events internship, which goes hand-to-hand with her tourism and events management major, she secretly felt unworthy of the internship given her Jewish background. She ended up interviewing for the position, and she was surprised and delighted to not feel any of the judgment she initially feared. During her summer internship, Kaylie is not only excited to gain professional experience, but to learn more about Judaism and see if it’s a lifestyle she wishes to pursue as she gets older.