ATLANTA (Apr. 4)
Inside the frame of a mock TV set, three African-Americans, an Asian-American and a Jew squeezed each other’s hands nervously as they stood on stage before 1,000 people.
The group of Georgia college students braced to hear which of the five finalists would be crowned "Campus Superstar," capping a nearly two-month vocal competition run by Hillels of Georgia.
The fund-raiser, simulating the hit show "American Idol," was an attempt not only to brand a concept but to refashion an organization that caters almost exclusively to Jewish students.
The novel approach was a way to raise Hillel’s profile on campus and update its image among college students — and attract unaffiliated Jewish students in the process.
Hundreds of students turned out to watch or try out for the competition, which awarded the winner — Andra London, the Jewish finalist and a Hillel activist at Atlanta’s Emory University — $5,000. She also will get to sing this spring at "Music Midtown," Atlanta’s premier pop music festival, and to perform the national anthem at an Atlanta Falcons football game.
Hillel expects to make more than $100,000 from the contest, more than three times as much as it has earned from any other special event in recent years.
After 11 finalists performed at an Atlanta auditorium April 1, the field was narrowed to five by a panel that included industry giants like Paul Worley, a country producer who has worked with Martina McBride and the Dixie Chicks; and Steve Koonin, an executive vice president of TBS Superstation and Turner Network Television.
The audience then chose the winner.
The event was a public relations bonanza for Hillel in the local community and among its donor base.
It showcased the energy and possibilities of campus life, as well as Hillel’s pioneering programming, said Jacob Schreiber, executive director of Hillels of Georgia.
"This is where you take a risk to do a program that’s so outrageous in scope — that’s what has excited this community," he said. "Now when they think of Hillel, they’re going to think exciting, cutting edge, big."
On stage, a Coca-Cola-sponsored "Red Room" — a lounge-like talk show held inside a giant mock television — was used for pre-performance chats between the singers and the master of ceremonies, local sports radio host Steak Shapiro.
Shapiro also bantered with local Hillel activists between performances, and plugs for Hillel were interspersed with the performances.
"Join the Jewish Bulldog nation!" Missy Ball urged, referring to the mascot of the University of Georgia, where she is Hillel president.
Ball amused the audience by talking about her hometown of Lincolnton, Ga. which she said has a population of six Jews — in other words, her family. But as the "first president of Hillel from Lincolnton, Georgia," she said, she’s looking for a "champion" to help fund her school’s chapter.
Much of the audience was Jewish, but even the non-Jewish participants, along with their friends and family in the auditorium, didn’t seem to mind the Jewish overtones of the event.
In introducing the judges, for example, Shapiro presented "another one of the goyim" as a "big macher."
The audience cheered when Hillel activists boasted of the organization’s accomplishments.
Han Oh, an Emory senior and one of the five finalists, said he appreciated Hillel’s open-mindedness.
"I definitely felt comfortable," he said.
Issues of ethnicity never really came up, said Oh, who has played in the band of his mother, a Korean pop singer.
Finalist Nicole Boddington, a Brooklyn native who belted out a Toni Braxton tune, said she was honored to be surrounded by so much talent in the experience. The junior at Atlanta’s Spelman College had tried out for "American Idol" but didn’t make the cut.
Hakim Ziyad, a Georgia State University senior who wowed the audience with his stage presence and responsive singing, said Hillel encouraged him and made him feel comfortable.
"Everyone was having so much fun backstage," said London, the eventual winner, who performed Celine Dion’s "I surrender."
"It didn’t feel like a competition. It felt like a performance," she said.
Asked whether being Jewish added any pressure to the situation, she said religion wasn’t discussed. In fact, said the marketing major, who hopes to be signed as a professional singer, she wasn’t sure anyone even knew she was Jewish.
London is the chair of arts and culture at Emory’s Hillel. While she’s already in the fold, she said, the event’s hipness will make other students "want more to be part of the jumpover" to Hillel.
That’s precisely the idea. According to Jeff Rubin, spokesman for the national Hillel organization, "Superstar" was one of a handful of Hillel programs around the country "that lower the threshold of Jewish backgrounds for everyone to participate."
"It’s taking engagement to the next level," he said.
Crafting a program with universal appeal often means high costs and difficult programming, however, so such events are few, he said.
Meanwhile, Schreiber will describe the program, and present a guidebook, at a national conference of Hillel lay leaders in Washington in May.
He plans to run a similar program next year.
Hillels of Georgia "picked up on a trend that’s sweeping America now, which is ‘American Idol,’ " he said. And he’s honing his strategy for the future.
"If we can find a way to do ‘The Apprentice’ next, we will," he said, referring to the popular reality show starring Donald Trump.