Hillel Student Organization Finds Its Sabra Groove

Hillel has been quietly, but steadily, expanding in Israel over the past decade, connecting skeptical Israelis to a different kind of Judaism.

It's 5 P.M. on Friday, and dozens of casually dressed 20-somethings are seated around tables at Bar Giora, a popular Tel Aviv bar just off Dizengoff Street. A four-person ensemble takes the stage and begins a rendition of "Lecha Dodi" to the tune of the Beatles' "Blackbird." From there it launches into other songs traditionally sung at Friday night religious services, infusing them with a modern-day beat.

Welcome to "Kabbalat Sofash" ("sofash" is the acronym for weekend), not to be confused with the "Kabbalat Shabbat" services traditionally held in synagogues to welcome Shabbat.  This happens to be an alternative Kabbalat Shabbat service – one of many cultural and social events sponsored by the Hillel chapter of Tel Aviv University that are drawing bigger and bigger crowds these days.

A Hillel chapter at Tel Aviv University?

That is correct. In fact, in recent years, Hillel chapters have sprung up on university and college campuses around the country, though they've stayed pretty much under the radar.

The burgeoning Hillel movement in Israel serves a somewhat different function than it does in the United States and other places, where it offers Jewish students an opportunity to celebrate holidays together and participate in social and educational activities with a Jewish flavor. Indeed, in most cases, the Hillel house is the only place on American campuses where Jewish students can go and not feel outnumbered.

Here, where Jews enjoy majority status, Israeli students have plenty of opportunities to meet and mingle with fellow Jews and share Shabbat meals with them. So as Alon Friedman, the incoming director general of Hillel Israel likes to point out, it's about strengthening the Jewish identity of young Israelis.

Young Israelis need to have their Jewish identity strengthened?

"Believe it or not, young Israelis today are not always aware of the fact that there's another half of this family that doesn't live here. They can talk to you about the history of Israel and the history of Zionism, but they don't know much about the 3,000-year-old history of the Jewish people. And that's what we're here for."

The idea, he says, is not to cram Judaism down their throats, but to introduce Israeli students to Jewish culture and Jewish values, in particular social activism, in a non-threatening way.

Einat Ashkenazi, of Tel Aviv University's Hillel chapter, might be considered the poster girl for the movement here. The 25-year-old political science major oversees 10 student volunteers who spend one day a week with children of cancer patients or children who have lost parents to cancer.  Ashkenazy says her involvement in Hillel was a natural step.

"I had been sent to work in Jewish summer camps in Canada by the Jewish Agency, and that's where I learned that things could be different. There wasn't this dichotomy you have in Israel, where you're either religious or secular, and there's nothing else. Over there, there's a lot more understanding and openness to different nuances in Judaism, and that appealed to me."

About 30,000 Israeli students participate in Hillel-sponsored activities every year, according to Friedman, who estimates that the core group of activists numbers about 800. The first Hillel house was set up in 1951 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to serve mainly overseas exchange students participating in one-year programs. During the Second Intifada, when enrollment in overseas programs at Israeli universities dropped dramatically, the Hebrew University Hillel, rather than closing down, decided to redefine its mission and focus on Israeli students. 

The Tel Aviv University Hillel chapter was created in 1997, also primarily to serve overseas exchange students. In 2003, the first Hillel chapter specifically for Israeli students was set up at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In the next four years, Hillel chapters sprouted up at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, at the University of Haifa, at Sapir College in Sderot, at Yezreel Valley College in Afula and at Tel Hai College in the Upper Galilee.

Elnatan Marcus, of the Haifa University Hillel chapter, is the son of American parents who went to college in the United States.

"Hillel was nothing new to me," he says in explaining his connection to Hillel.

The 25-year-old sociology major, who grew up in a religious home, is about to launch a Hillel-sponsored dialogue group for religious and secular students on his campus.

At Tel Aviv University, Ashkenazy says it's often difficult to engage Israeli students, who tend to be older and more cynical than their American counterparts as well as Israelis from other parts of the country.

"Especially here at Tel Aviv University, it's a challenge," she notes. "Often they'll be very skeptical when you approach them, but slowly slowly, you see them opening up."

The cynical Tel Aviv University students participating in the alternative Kabbalat Shabbat service at Bar Giora are urged by ShabbaTLV, the ensemble playing on stage, to don headphones to help create a more "intimate" listening experience that doesn't require microphones. Everyone obeys. Then they're asked to follow the words on the screen and sing along with the band. Not so much this time. A few, though, are tapping their feet to the rhythm.

Moti Milrod
Moti Milrod