MU Hillel reflects on 60 years of Jewish student life

MU Hillel reflects on 60 years of Jewish student life

Columbia — College is what you make of it, and Shira Berkowitz would be the first to tell you that.

"I think here I had to create, or at least attempt to create, the community I wanted to walk into," said Berkowitz, a senior at MU, as she remembered her first months on campus, and the Jewish student life she stepped into.

Berkowitz is one character in a story that's now 60 years old, as MU Hillel celebrates its anniversary this weekend.

MU Hillel, on University Avenue, will feature events like a musical shabbat and a silent auction as part of the festivities. Yet, all this excitement could go unnoticed by many, just as the simple building itself might.

"So many people walk past it every day and don't know it's here," said Scott Susman, vice president of relations for the Jewish Student Organization and a member of the anniversary committee.

For such a modest appearance, MU Hillel has housed the likes of President Harry S. Truman, I.B. Singer, Elie Weisel, Ira Levin and other notable musicians and speakers since it began at MU in 1947.

MU Hillel is part of the national organization Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Susman says that MU Hillel is about more than just members of an organization sharing beliefs; it's a group of friends who even hang out outside of organized events.

"It becomes part of you and your college experience," Susman said.

Susman has been involved with MU Hillel since he was a freshman frequenting events. Now, as a senior, Susman heads up committees like the Holocaust Remembrance Committee of last year.

"I'm going to miss the comfort of being able to just walk in; this place has become a second home," said Susman, who graduates in May. "It's a level of comfort — being able to walk in and help out as well as be helped."

Several Jewish students, including Susman, volunteer during the week at MU Hillel.

Ana Logue, a part-time student intern since October, finds working at MU Hillel a great experience even with her non-Jewish background.

"I had a lot of Jewish friends and one of them told me there was an opportunity to work here, so I looked into it," Logue said. "Working here has made me more cultured, and I am able to see a different perspective."

Logue says that the organization's mission is very meaningful.

"I think what they are trying to do is build really strong young men and women in their Jewish faith and help them get involved in their community," Logue said.

She has also enjoyed the camaraderie of a small but active group whenever she has interacted with the Jewish students.

"When you meet one person, you meet ten," Logue said.

The Jewish student population on campus peaked during the early '70s with numbers close to 2,000, and is now around 650 undergraduate students and 25 graduate students, with varying levels of involvement.

Paul Saiger, a former MU Hillel director and rabbi of the Congregation Beth Shalom, the local Jewish congregation that used to hold services in MU Hillel's building, says this decline could be due to the geographic shift of Jewish communities around the Midwest and to the decline in resources for Jewish students, such as fewer Jewish fraternities and sororities.

Berkowitz, president of the Jewish Student Organization, who came to MU from a strong Jewish background, noticed the small numbers of people involved in MU Hillel and was determined to do something about it.

"When I came as a freshman, only five or ten students went to Friday night Shabbat services every week," Berkowitz said, and now those numbers are close to 40 or 45 weekly, due in part to Berkowitz's efforts to encourage fellow student participation.

Pleased with these results, Berkowitz hopes for more growth in the future.

"I think right now it's important that we've set up a structure for Jewish students so that hopefully now more students will come specifically to be involved in Jewish life here," Berkowitz said.

Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld remembers the excitement and the challenges of serving Jewish students and other members of the community when he served as director of MU Hillel. He also was the rabbi of the local Jewish community from 1983 to 1997.

"You come home and you feel good that you were able to make a difference in someone's life," Rosenfeld said. "What I remember most was relationships — the friendships made and experiences shared."

With one building housing two groups — the congregation and the students — MU Hillel had unique opportunities.

"In a small community like Columbia where the congregation is so mixed with the students, everyone celebrated important events in each others lives together, like Bar and Bat Mitzvahs," Saiger said.

The congregation moved into its own building in 2003, but Saiger says that the congregation owes much to MU Hillel.

Kerry Hollander, executive director for MU Hillel, remembers her time as an MU student.

"My involvement during my time as an undergrad was limited to five times. ... I went to the opening event each year and once stayed for the High Holy days. My Jewish life centered around my family, which lived two hours away, and my Jewish sorority, so my Jewish needs were being met," Hollander said.

Hollander's own minimal involvement as a student at MU Hillel is not unusual from what she sees today, nor does it concern her when other students walk similar paths.

"I want students to feel comfortable with whatever level of participation in MU Hillel that they have," Hollander said. "Their level of participation is less important than that they identify with Jewish values. But we are here if they need us."

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