"Every soul has a Torah."
That’s the message Eric D. Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, delivered to the audience at the fifth-annual Hillel International Global Assembly, held at the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center this week.
“You’re helping your students discover, articulate and live their Torah,” Fingerhut said.
And that message echoed the conference’s theme — learn, inspire, think.
The weeklong assembly, which began with a moving tribute to the victims of the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, featured a variety of thought-provoking sessions attended by more than 1,200 professionals, stakeholders and partners from around the global Hillel movement.
One of those sessions was the second-annual Hillel Talks, featuring five campus professionals who shared personal stories, insights and ideas to inspire their peers.
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, assistant director of New York University Hillel, stressed the importance of building inclusive Jewish communities on campus.
“Inclusion is literally a matter of life and death,” Deblosi said. “Our challenge as Hillel professionals is there are students in our communities who we do not know yet. How can we make them feel included?”
Magda Dorosz, executive director of Hillel Warsaw, said 70 percent of her students grew up unaware of their Jewish roots.
Now that they know who they are and where they come from, she said, “we’re no longer afraid. We’re no longer ashamed. We’re no longer hiding our identity.”
Alongside Hillel's Global Assembly, more than 100 lay leaders convened for the second-annual Global Leadership Conference — an effort to bring together Hillel’s movement-wide stakeholders to deepen and strengthen their knowledge of Hillel’s work.
They participated in a frank, intimate discussion about Generation Z, exploring the mental health crisis on campus and how the advent of social media has affected the way students engage with others.
Shelia Katz, vice president of student engagement and leadership at Hillel International, said Generation Z is the most connected generation, but it’s also the loneliest. And if Hillel professionals want to build relationships with these students, they must meet them where they are — both mentally and physically.
“There is no question that wellness is at the core of Hillel’s work,” Katz went on to say. “We can’t help Jewish students create a Jewish life after college if they don’t have a healthy life and if they don’t feel whole.”
Global Leadership Society attendees also took part in a panel discussion with prominent Jewish philanthropists, including Stacy Schusterman, chair of the Schusterman Family Foundation. She spoke about the power of conversation to build and strengthen Jewish community.
“We can be creative about how we connect people — through dialogue and accepting difference of opinions,” Schusterman said. “How we have dialogue, by being open to having a conversation without labeling people, is so important to carry the conversation forward.”
Hillel International also presented more than 20 awards to its talented professionals and innovative campuses. On Wednesday, five campus professionals were honored with the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award for their work with students.
Exemplar winner Bailey London, executive director of University of Southern California Hillel, was honored for building a Hillel that is increasingly on the forefront of wellness and prevention — all through a Jewish lens. London was lauded for being “a voice of hope and comfort when answering late-night calls from Hillel students in crisis, preventing one from engaging in self-harm and helping another admit themselves to a rehab center.”
Andrew Freeman, a newly minted Jewish life associate at Metro Chicago Hillel, said Global Assembly was an opportunity to connect with Hillel professionals from around the world and learn best practices for working on campus.
“Hillel cares about its professionals, and it shows,” Freeman said. “It was incredible to meet so many people who came to better themselves and the way they engage with students on campus.”