Menu JTA Search

FOCUS ON ISSUES Hillel expands mission to Europe, trying to embrace Jewish students

JUF News
CHICAGO, March 18 (JTA) — On the heels of its expansion throughout the former Soviet Union, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is preparing to set up centers throughout Europe. Officials from the European Hillel officially introduced the new project at a conference held here March 13-15. The jam-packed, three-day conference, sponsored by the Schusterman family, drew 250 Hillel lay leaders, board members, faculty and students from around the world. It addressed everything from strengthening Jewish life on campus and Jewish federation-Hillel relations to new initiatives such as “2000 in 2000,” a plan to send 2,000 college students to Israel in the year 2000, and Tzedek Hillel, a plan to increase social action projects within each Hillel. “It’s a dynamic and invigorating process to be exposed to different Hillel models, and it’s exciting to know that we are a part of a global process. Hillel really has a worldwide vision,” said Rabbi Michael Balinsky, director of the Louis and Saerree Fiedler Hillel Center at Northwestern University in Chicago. The announcement of a European Hillel attests to Hillel’s mission to revitalize Jewish life around the world, say those involved with the student organization. “We’re determined to build a Jewish future in Europe,” said Samuel Fishman, senior adviser for European affairs for Hillel’s International Center in Washington and a liaison to the European Hillel. “Our mission with the European Hillel is to prepare a new generation of leadership to commit themselves to building Jewish lives in the countries where they live.” The plan, launched in June 1998, includes establishing Hillel centers in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia and Hungary. It is funded by B’nai B’rith Europe, the German government and Jewish philanthropists throughout Europe. European Hillel will work with Jewish students and young adults aged 18-35. Part of its aim is to work with Jewish communities such as the one in Rostock, Germany, which is made up of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. For the Eastern bloc countries, European Hillel will work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “We’re building each community by addressing their needs. We’re trying to find out not only why young Jews are not involved in Jewish life, but most importantly, what will bring them in,” said Gady Gronich, director of the European Hillel foundation, who came to the conference from the European Hillel’s headquarters in Munich, Germany. Organization officials say Hillel’s presence throughout Europe, which includes full-time staff members to oversee each Hillel, will provide the structure and stability absent under the European Union of Jewish Students — a grass-roots, student-run initiative based in Brussels that oversaw Jewish student life until now — and the occasional initiative of individual student activists. European Jewry is facing the same foes as the Jewish communities throughout North America: assimilation and a comparable intermarriage rate of 50 to 60 percent, according to Nathan Kalmanowicz, a member of European Hillel’s executive board, who also came to the conference from Munich. An active member of the German Jewish community, Kalmanowicz was born in Munich after World War II to Holocaust survivors who returned to Germany after the war. International Hillel and the European Hillel are also planning ways to involve the estimated 5,000 to 25,000 American Jewish students who study abroad in Europe each year. “This is a historical moment,” said Kalmanowicz.. We’re at the very beginning of something really big that’s happening right now throughout all of Europe.”