Okla-haimish!

Would you believe there is vibrant Jewish life at University of Oklahoma?

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
April 16, 2009 11:12
Okla-haimish!

hillel oklahoma 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

It wouldn't surprise anyone to hear that OU was facilitating impressive kosher Sedarim, Jewish educational events and lectures about Israel. But it probably would if the OU in question was the one at OU.edu, not the one at OU.org. The Orthodox Union has long been renowned for its kosher certification, educational outreach and its Israel Center. And now, the University of Oklahoma is starting to follow in its footsteps. It is obviously far away from competing with the Orthodox Union, or with American universities with reputations as Jewish centers like Brandeis, Harvard, Penn or Michigan. But thanks to the efforts of its Hillel Foundation's rabbi and the support of the university, there is nothing short of a Jewish renaissance taking place at the University of Oklahoma. "Everyone knows that the OU is synonymous with thriving Jewish life, but what people don't know is that the other OU is also becoming synonymous with thriving Jewish life, and we will make sure that continues into the future," says Jeremy Cassius, an Orthodox rabbi who serves as the Hillel's executive director. Cassius was raised in Memphis and worked at the Hillels of two Cleveland universities before he was offered the executive director's job at the University of Oklahoma, a school with no more than 500 Jews out of 25,000 students in a state with only 5,000 Jews. He admits that it is not easy for him, his wife Aliza and their three young children to be frum on the frontier, but he says they are glad they came. "My wife and I said there was no way we were moving to Oklahoma," Cassius says in an interview on campus. "But when we came here, we liked the people, we saw the enormous potential for Jewish life and we decided to brave the waters. We took the risk to come here, leave a larger Jewish community and come to a place where there aren't a lot of resources for a family like us. And we never regretted it." THE CASSIUS family agreed to come for three years until their eldest daughter was ready to start first grade and would need a Jewish school. Hillel has already named his replacement, who will begin in July: Keren Ayalon, who currently serves as director of strategic initiatives at Princeton University's Center for Jewish Life. Cassius, 35, will leave behind a legacy that includes a record number of students going on Israel trips, a budget twice as high as when he came and several new Jewish student organizations, including an AEPi fraternity and groups for graduate students and women. With the blessing of university president David Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and US senator, the Hillel increased efforts to recruit Jewish students from nearby Jewish communities in Dallas and Houston. The university's Judaic studies program is competitive and offers scholarship opportunities for students interested in minoring in Judaic studies or Hebrew. Shabbat dinners have branched out from the Hillel dining facility that Cassius koshered to his home and those of students, and on Pessah dozens of students attended Sedarim in the homes of Jewish families in the surrounding city of Norman. The Jewish communities in Norman and nearby Oklahoma City are trying to persuade students to stay in Oklahoma and join their efforts to grow. Chabad has a posh new building in Oklahoma City. But perhaps the biggest change is the vibrant pro-Israel programming on campus. The Sooners for Israel organization includes a surprisingly high percentage of non-Jews. The organization brought in multiple speakers from Israel this year and recently sponsored a campus-wide Middle East peace panel with a Palestinian student group that included Israeli OU professor Maurice Roumani and anti-Israel professors from the university. Israeli political strategist Mitchell Barak, who spoke three times at the university last month and has spoken about Israel on campuses across America, says the students and the rabbi made a very positive impression on him. "I was impressed by the pioneering dedication of the rabbi and his wife to go to a place like Oklahoma, by the knowledge of the Jewish and non-Jewish students on Israel, and the high percentage of students involved in pro-Israel organizations on campus," he says. SOONERS FOR Israel president Misheala Giddings says her organization made a point of reaching out to non-Jewish students to spread positive messages about Israel. For instance, when the Israeli consulate in Houston brought in an Ethiopian-Israeli dance troupe, the black student organization on campus cosponsored, and environmental groups cosponsored an event highlighting what Israel has done on environmental issues. "Our goal is to bring awareness of Israel as a country and not as a topic of debate for people who otherwise would have no connection to Israel," Giddings says. "If you can tie Israel into something they really care about, then it gives them a more positive view of Israel and it's easier to sell them on Israel advocacy." Giddings went to a Jewish high school in California. She says that after taking her Judaism for granted, going to a university where people were less aware of Jewish holidays and traditions forced her to learn more about her own religion so she could explain it. Hillel Student Board president Isaac Freeman, who was raised in a large Jewish community in Scottsdale, Arizona, says it is special attending a university with a small and close Jewish community. "It's more rewarding to be Jewish here," Freeman says. "It means so much more in such a tight-knit setting. It feels like a family. I know everyone here and I feel very much at home here." Zoology professor David Durica, who is the president of OU Hillel's board of directors, says he had been involved with OU Hillel for 20 years and he never saw Jewish life on campus thriving the way it is today. "What we are seeing now is a peak," Durica says. "We can always do better, but we've made some inroads. Jeremy is an active, dynamic and energetic Hillel director who has spearheaded our efforts in student programming and partnering with the university. We're reaching out to the entire campus, especially on Israel awareness, in a place where people aren't as aware about Israel or Jewish culture at all. For its size, our Jewish community is very vibrant." Now it will be up to Ayalon to build on the foundation that Cassius established. Alana Hughes, director of administration at the Lynn Schusterman Foundation in Tulsa, who helped recruit both Cassius and Ayalon, says she is confident that OU Hillel will continue to be a model for Jewish campus revitalization nationwide. "Jeremy brought a new life to the Hillel and gave students the kind of programming they had been clamoring for," Hughes says. "I expect such a successful Hillel in communities with much larger Jewish populations. Doing it in a place with such a small Jewish community makes it that much more of an accomplishment."


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