I just hit the 5-month mark in my role as the new executive director at the San Francisco Hillel. One thing I have discovered in my short time here is that the broader Jewish community largely sees Hillel as an abstraction: People know it’s out there, but it’s not their community. It’s an intangible. Maybe they participated in Hillel “back in the day” or their children go to Hillel at some university out there somewhere. But it’s not their synagogue, it’s not their JCC, it’s not their kids’ day school. They peripherally get its importance, but it’s not really tangible since it’s not something in which they participate.
One point I can’t emphasize enough though: SF Hillel has a direct impact on the future of the Jewish people. We’ve all read the Pew reports, we all know Jewish engagement is on a decline. Hillel is on the front line of solving that problem, which is why we have a new mission to keep us focused and show exactly how we address it. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning and prescribes our day as our small but mighty team covers all colleges and universities, both graduate and undergraduate, in San Francisco. Our mission:
We’re here to support all Jewish college students in San Francisco and fortify the future of the Jewish people.
We learn about each student’s relationship with Judaism and then help them explore their Jewish identity, build Jewish community and develop them into our future Jewish leaders.
College is a big juncture in a student’s life and one of the few universally shared experiences among American Jews. It’s when they are exploring, experimenting, and seeking to understand who they really are and who they really want to be. It’s a make it or break it time – college is where they can connect or disconnect from their Jewish Identity.
This juncture is particularly complicated in San Francisco and specifically at San Francisco State University, where antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiment percolates below the surface and like a geyser shoots up at random intervals. The administration at State partners well with us during those times, but the sentiment will always be there. Many Jewish students prefer to hide their Jewish identity than deal with confrontation. SF Hillel is here to give them a safe space to find Jewish community and learn that they don’t need to hide their identity -- that they should demand respect and not be forced into the shadows. We are here to support them through these challenging moments.
It's not just about finding confidence in one’s Jewish identity, in whatever form that may take…it’s also about meeting basic needs, whether it’s the rampant mental stress our college students face or food insecurity. We run grocery “shuks” for students to come to Hillel and shop (for free) for perishable and non-perishable items to help put food on the table or issue small grants to help with food and rent. Meeting those needs is core to what SF Hillel does and who we are as a Jewish people. Many in the community may not realize that a portion of our students are first generation college students and some struggle with homelessness. There’s not a lot of wealth in this community.
In my few months at SF Hillel, I have been inspired by both our dedicated staff and our engaged Jewish students. I’ve been inspired by our many donors that really get it and tell me I have the hardest job in San Francisco (a bit hyperbolic, but I get what they mean). I would be remiss if I did not stand on the rooftop and shout to anyone who will listen (and even those who won’t) about what we do here. That this is important. This is critical. This is our future. Getting the broader Jewish community to rally behind our efforts to help our next generation at this time in their lives would dramatically make solidifying their Jewish connection a lot easier!
We need a new building. We can’t offer the services required of a 21st Century Hillel in the old house we have now that has no private meeting space, severe capacity limitations, and is inaccessible to anyone with physical limitations. We need to offer robust, compelling programs to support many students and create a space that is their second home. Parents are sending their kids to us and we need to take care of them.
As Joe Pedott of blessed memory says, it’s for the students.
It’s for our students – our next generation.
Executive Director, SF Hillel
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