Home to the next generation

Opening of Hillel Houses across Israel has met with enormous success - also among native-born Israelis.

hillel campus 88 (photo credit: )
hillel campus 88
(photo credit: )
Last Friday night, on the well-manicured grounds of a quaint, secluded university campus in the heart of Herzliya, over 120 students from all over the world gathered for a Shabbat prayer service. An impressive marble-laid conference room - one usually reserved for high-powered political assemblies or important meetings with the university administration - was transformed into a dining hall where any student looking for a cozy Shabbat meal was welcome. The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya - a school where only three years ago students yearning to connect to their Judaism were at a loss as to where such a journey should begin - today hosts one of Israel's most vibrant and fastest-growing Hillel Houses. Although most of the students at the IDC international school, which comprises over 1,000 immigrants from 56 different countries, were driven to study in Israel by a Zionist ideology, many desired a more meaningful relationship with their heritage. They craved a community where they could rebuild the support system they had left with their families and friends overseas. They felt that Zionism alone would not sustain their passion for living in Israel, so they sought to pair it with Jewish values. It was from within this passionate group that the now-thriving IDC Hillel House was conceived. The opening of Hillel Houses across Israel has met with enormous success, not only among international students, but also by native-born Israelis - a surprising phenomenon, considering the purpose of the Jewish centers. In America, Hillel Houses were instituted to reconnect Jewish students with a sense of yiddishkeit (Jewishness), primarily in an attempt to protect against intermarriage and assimilation. Hillel is meant to serve as a social network for Jews, a place for revival of the Shabbat experience, and a way for Diaspora students to connect with Zionist values and the State of Israel. For a student who grew up in Israel, such an organization seems superfluous. Yet Hillel Israel has opened offices on four new campuses since 2000, and every one of them has been welcomed with open arms by the student body. "While young Israelis speak Hebrew and follow the cycle of the Jewish calendar, many perceive Jewish tradition to be outdated, inaccessible, or irrelevant to their lives. All of this has contributed to a crisis of meaning among Israeli youth," explains Rabbi Yossie Goldman, head of Hillel Israel. "Hillel Israel emphasizes the relevance of Jewish life to today's Israeli students, inspiring them to explore their Jewish identity, advance their personal and professional development, and enrich the State of Israel and the Jewish people around the world." Part of the problem, as Hillel sees it, is that the definitions of "Judaism" and "Israeli culture" have become entangled with one another. Young Israelis, says the group, grow up aware of the holiday seasons and Jewish tradition is inherent in everyday existence, but such a reality makes many Israelis take their religion for granted. They live in a country where everyone around them is Jewish, they are propelled by complacency into accepting a weakened Jewish identity. Yaniv Sasson, an alumnus of the IDC School of Government and a native Israeli, realized that something was wrong when his studies led to his knowing "a lot more about Islam and Christianity than about Judaism." "I grew up in a secular house where my knowledge of my religion was limited to the Bible stories I learned in elementary school," Sasson explains. "Because I grew up in a Jewish state, my Jewish identity stayed minor, whereas my Israeli identity was always at the forefront. I was drawn toward Hillel by a sense of curiosity. I was ashamed to say that my religion was a mystery to me, and I wanted to change that." Sasson and many other young Israelis today are a testament that an inherent connection to Judaism as a result of growing up in a Jewish homeland is not enough. Hillel functions as the starting point for these students to begin a more profound discovery of past and of self. At the General Assembly held in Jerusalem this past November, as part of the discussion of major themes in the contemporary Jewish world, a recurring emphasis was put on the impact Hillel has had on Jewish youth today. During the conference, a private ceremony was held for Mr. Edgar Bronfman, one of the philanthropists who funds the organization. Bronfman received warm thanks from President Shimon Peres for his dedication to reviving Jewish student life. The honoree's son, Adam Bronfman, addressed the entire assembly on the second morning of the conference. He spoke eloquently and proudly of Hillel's aim of preserving the Jewish legacy within the "next generation." Hillel International is seen as an answer to one of the greatest threats facing Jews today: the threat, as the younger Bronfman described it, of "[Jewish] intolerance and indifference." Contemporary Judaism needs to focus "not only [on] gaining equality in the secular world, but amongst ourselves," he said. This statement holds true especially in Israel, where Hillel aims to offer an alternative to what it perceives as widespread apathy held by many secular Israelis - born of a lack of exposure to the depth and meaning that a connection to one's Jewish heritage can offer. Israel is already a State, the dream of building a Jewish homeland a reality. The rich Jewish tradition of emphasizing kindness to others is being tapped daily by young people in the form of Hillel volunteer projects that help new olim integrate into Israeli society, or that offer relief to families in Sderot. Students are rediscovering their biblically-rooted culture through activities such as Hillel holiday parties, communal Shabbat meals, yoga classes with a spiritual twist, and Kabbala courses on college campuses, to name but a few. Today's generation is spearheading the Hillel revolution of using our history and our tradition to propel us forward into a stronger tomorrow, at least spiritually.