Hillel comes to Hiram College
Published: Friday, December 24, 2010 1:09 AM EST
Senior Staff Reporter
“If not now, when?” wondered Hiram College junior Bobby Weitzner about the small number of Jewish students at his school and the lack of a student Hillel. Dean Cheryl Torsney, chief academic officer, wondered the same thing. She even asked Hiram’s Chaplain Jason Bricker-Thompson, “Where are all the Jews?”
In response, Bricker-Thompson held a luncheon a few weeks later for Jewish students at Hiram.“Only six or seven kids showed up,” Torsney says. “It was very clear there was a modest Jewish presence on the 1,200 student body campus and that a viable Hillel could be one of the answers to increase our numbers.”
Years ago, there had been a larger Jewish population at Hiram, located 30 miles southeast of Cleveland. Torsney discovered a Hillel charter at the Student Services building and then found a cabinet containing Jewish religious artifacts donated by a former associate dean, Glen Sharfman.
Torsney contacted the national Hillel headquarters and was directed to Hillel’s Soref Initiative, which provides guidance, financial assistance, online resources, and a communication network to students attending colleges with a small Jewish population.
“Through Soref we were able to establish a Jewish beachhead at Hiram,” Torsney says. Soref sent the fledgling Hillel group banners, pens, magnets and programming guides.
The result? “Hillel has been going like gangbusters,” Torsney says. “Bobby has a full slate of officers and is the face of Hillel on campus.”
This leadership role was a natural for Weitzner, 21. He was president of his Gideon BBYO chapter while a student at Beachwood and Aurora High Schools, was on the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Saltzman Youth Panel, and went on a Birthright trip after high-school graduation.
“When I first came to this campus, I missed a cohesive Jewish community,” he says. “When our adviser Dean Torsney asked me to help lead the new Hillel, I was ready.”
“Hillel has been going like gangbusters.” Dean Cheryl Torsney
Weitzner, son of Carolyn and Ron Weitzner, also had been the victim of anti-Semitic comments on campus and was disturbed by some anti-Israel student-run meetings there. “Many campuses experience a degree of anti-Semitism, and Hiram is no different,” notes Torsney. But, she says, the school’s diversity “can open dialogues.”
Israel is very dear to Weitzner’s heart. After Birthright, he attended two Jewish National Fund “Alternative Spring Break” sessions in Israel, where he did community service work in struggling Negev communities. This year, under the auspices of Hiram’s sociology department, he is doing an independent study project called “Sderot in the World’s Eye,” which will culminate in a spring trip to Sderot.
Since their first meeting in the fall, Weitzner and his board members, Sarah Borkan (Cleveland Heights), Aaron Lynch (Cleveland Heights), Ashley Andrews (Middlefield) and Maddi Shulman (Ann Arbor, Mich.,), have planned a number of successful activities on the Hiram campus.
Initially Weitzner could only identify about eight students who were Jewish, but when he announced a free kick-off Shabbat dinner at the student center, 14 students showed up to light Friday night candles.
This was followed by a succah building event on the campus green, which attracted 12 Jewish students and a number of non-Jewish coeds who “stopped by to see what was going on,” Weitzner says.
The third night of Chanukah, Hiram Hillel students held a large celebration at the Kennedy Student Center for 70 people. They lit candles, played dreidel and ate 200 latkes. Members of the campus theater guild performed a Chanukah play for the group based on the children’s book The Little Menorah Who Forgot Chanukah.
“Even though the majority of the people there were not Jewish, the event was a great social opportunity and a chance to raise our visibility,” Weitzner explains.
Hiram Hillel’s budget comes from student-run association funds. They receive $4,000 for activities and $300 for capital items. They can also receive additional funding through Soref.
Weitzner and his board are busy planning activities for the rest of the school year. These include Sunday bagel brunches with discussions, monthly Havdalah services followed by movie nights, and holidays and tsedakah events.
Weitzner has also been in contact with the Kent Hillel student board to plan joint activities. This fall Weitzner attended the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in New Orleans through a Hillel grant. He joined Kent State Hillel student leaders for “an incredible experience,” he says.
Although the esprit de corps is high for the small nucleus of committed Hiram Hillel members, Weitzner wishes other Jewish students on campus would join the group.
“I have been told by some Jewish kids here, ‘I don’t do Hillel,’” he says. “But there are so few of us here, that even when a small faction doesn’t identify with us, it is frustrating.”
Torsney has been contacting college counselors in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs to have their Jewish students consider Hiram. “We have begun an aggressive campaign to recruit more Jewish students,” she says. “Our Hillel is a positive step in that direction.”