Hillel at 85: Celebrating in cyberspace

Organization recently expanded to 10 campuses in Israel.

Hillel, the world's largest Jewish student organization, chose a unique way to celebrate its 85th anniversary. In lieu of its annual black-tie gala dinner, the organization invited friends of Hillel around the world to host their own parties on Sunday night. The dinner was canceled in light of the international economic crisis. On Monday, the US House of Representatives introduced a resolution commending Hillel on its accomplishments. Sunday's parties were all connected by a live webcast from the home of Hillel President Wayne Firestone in Rockville, Maryland. A second webcast, aimed mainly at North American Hillel supporters, featured distinguished Hillel alumni who discussed the organization's impact on them. The celebrations were held in 25 cities, on four continents - from Anchorage, Alaska, to Montevideo, Uruguay, and from Jerusalem to Moscow. The event was "fun and celebratory, and technologically a new way to reach out to people," Firestone said. In his webcast, he said the important thing was "not just when can we all physically be together, but also how can we connect and validate each other... [and] what different campuses and universities are doing to bring alive the organization's values." At the Washington celebration, Lynne Harrison, this year's honoree and a member of the organization's board of governors and board of directors, said, "There is the ability to participate in the party for many people who otherwise would not have come to a New York gala." Over the past decade, Hillel: The foundation for Jewish Campus Life has expanded around the world. "We see a future trajectory on the global platform. This is one of the major significances of celebrating the 85th in a way that South American, Russian and Israeli Hillel supporters could participate," Firestone said. Heli Tabibi, director of the Hebrew University Hillel, said "[Hillel is] one big organization, that Jews from Israel and from abroad are a part of. We celebrate together because Hillel is international." Supporters of Hillel throughout the world were invited to leave birthday messages on the organization's Web site. A message from Hillel of Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East, some 30 km. from the Chinese border and the most eastern Hillel in the world, sent best wishes: "May Hillel in the entire world go from strength to strength and keep building the Jewish future for Am Yisrael ledor vador [from generation to generation]." Firestone said each party was meant to be meaningful, emphasizing values of charity and study. Others served as fund-raisers for the organization. Firestone said the event was telling of Hillel's plans for the future. "The globalization trend" is Hillel's next big step, he said, mentioning long-distance videoconference study sessions as an example of something "to make our encounters not only more frequent, and not merely chatting or twittering, but actually about something of Jewish depth and exploration." Eighty-five balloons were released in a park in Moscow, a study session was held at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and students at Virginia Tech University pledged 850 volunteer hours. Students at Tufts University, near Boston, distributed 85 children's books to orphans in Rwanda. Hillel consultant Josh Kram said the event was extremely successful - not only did the organization exceed its fund-raising goal, it also allowed friends of Hillel- students, alums, and lay leaders - to connect. "This is the way to do it, using technology in new and innovative ways. We learned lessons from the presidential campaign... We saw the impact of technology in bringing people together," he said. In discussing the importance of Hillel, Firestone said that "we live now with a generation of searchers, as opposed to people who join or affiliate. This generation on campuses searches via search engines, processes their identity while they process information." Hillel, according to Firestone, is the first opportunity for young adults to seriously wrestle with adult questions on the relevance of Judaism and Jewish identity in their lives. "We have taken the view that it isn't a question of competing with universal trends, but establishing what are the traditions and values associated with Jewish life," he said. The House measure recognizes Hillel for its involvement in the US civil rights movement, the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, the Save Darfur movement and interfaith relations. The resolution also commends Hillel's contributions to Israel education on campus and to combating anti-Semitism. The resolution was co-sponsored by Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Illinois) and Ron Klein (D-FL). Johnson's district houses the University of Illinois, Hillel's birthplace. Hillel's mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students on each of the 500 campuses around the world on which it operates, so that those students may enrich the Jewish people and the world, Firestone said. The organization's leaders took this milestone as an opportunity to reflect on Hillel's accomplishments. One of its most recent endeavors was expanding to 10 campuses in Israel. "[The move helps] Israeli students who have never taken seriously the idea of exploring their Jewish identity with peers," Firestone said. "It's basically included a generation of young Israelis in a conversation about Jewish identity." Many alumni at the event in Washington told how Hillel impacted their lives. With participants virtually connecting to other Hillel supporters worldwide, "We were able to give everyone the feeling that they were part of one big party," Hillel development associate Rachel Tranen said.