Helping my Students to Build a Conservative Community
By Rabbi Esther Reed
Senior Associate Director for Jewish Campus Life
One thing that makes Rutgers Hillel unique as an organization is how we empower our student leaders. Hillel encourages our students to create the Jewish community they envision for themselves and their peers. We train them, support them, and have faith in their abilities to succeed. One example of how student leaders have made their mark can be seen through Sami Brandspiegel ’17 and Alex Hamilton ’17, the Conservative Community co-chairs on the Rutgers Hillel Student Board. As a Conservative rabbi, I’m honored to serve as an advisor to these students, as well as the student board working under them, and help guide them as they build the community on campus.
During the Fall Semester, Sami and Alex brought fresh new ideas to the community. Social events related to holidays included a Rosh Hashana “Everything Apples” event, complete with apple pie, sliced apples and honey, bobbing for apples, and shooting apples with Nerf guns. For Sukkot they planned a “Sushi in the Sukkah” event that was very well attended, despite having to move indoors because of the rain. Their first annual pre-Chanukah event, “Fried Food Fiesta for the Festival of Lights” included a variety of fried foods, a make-your-own sufganiot (filled donut) bar, and a viewing of the Rugrats Chanukah Special. We brought menorahs and candles to the event that students could take home, and we had none leftover by the end of the evening!
Sami and Alex also made innovations in the variety of Shabbat activities. In addition to Friday night services every week, and Saturday morning services about once a month, Sami and Alex implemented a Seudah Shlisheet program a couple of times during the semester. This included Mincha, Maariv, and Havdalah prayer services that Koach had not been running regularly prior to this year. We also held a Tisch on a Friday night after Shabbat dinner, where Yossi Garr, Director of the Nativ program, led lively singing over snacks. Due to a grant we got from the Ramah Commission, we were able to reach out to alumni of the Camp Ramah movement, as well as staff who work at Camps Ramah, to include them in our programming that Shabbat as well.
Our JTS intern, Katie Greenberg, worked with Sami and Alex to come up with educational programming that was particularly successful this fall. She led a series on “Sex in the Text,” which she would teach at our Shabbat lunches or Seudah Shelisheet meals. These text studies focused on various topics on sexuality, and what rabbinic literature has to say on it. Katie also taught a course on Environmentalism and Judaism during the Shmita year, which explored environmental themes throughout Jewish literature in light of the beginning of the shmita year, a year when all the crops lay fallow. Although Katie’s internship ended, we are so grateful to have learned from her this fall!
Alex, Sami and their board have planned an ambitious line-up for the Spring Semester as well. In addition to weekly Friday night services, we are increasing our Saturday programming to have some sort of activity every other week. We would alternate between Saturday morning services and Seudah Shelisheet, Maariv, Havdalah. This would make Rutgers one of the few campuses in the country to have regular traditional egalitarian programming on Saturdays, in addition to Friday nights.
Sami and Alex have also been hard at work in selecting educational speakers for second semester as well. Once a month, we will be bringing in local NJ clergy for a dinner and learning program, including Cantor Larry Brandspiegel of East Windsor, Rabbi Jerry Zelizer of Metuchen, and Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of South Orange. We are also very excited to have Rabbi Danny Nevins, Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, coming for an evening program as well. These education programs are crucial to give pluralistic voice to Conservative movement values on a campus with a significant number of Orthodox educational programs.
Finally, our Spring Semester wouldn’t be complete without enticing social events. For the past few years, Koach has hosted “Kosher Fat Sandwich Nights” as a way to bring mainstream campus culture into a Jewish context. The “Grease Trucks” of Rutgers are well known for their non-kosher “Fat Sandwiches,” so Koach enables Jewish students to enjoy this Rutgers tradition in a kosher way. Sami and Alex have added additional social events, include a viewing of the movie “Prince of Egypt” during Passover and birthday celebrations once a month at Friday night services.
As you can see, the Conservative community at Rutgers is vibrant and thriving. Thanks to the hard work of our students, we have strong attendance at events and a warm, friendly atmosphere. We’re looking forward to the continuation of a wonderful year for Koach at Rutgers!
If traditional egalitarian Judaism is the value you stand for, please support the Conservative community at Rutgers Hillel so it can continue to thrive on campus.