Susan Yost may not have attended the University of Minnesota for undergrad, but her love for Hillel dates back to her time as a student at the University of Michigan. That has led her to join the Minnesota Hillel board two years, and now, Yost has recently been installed as the newest president of the board. She talks about the challenges ahead – and invites the community to Maroon and Gold Shabbat – in this week’s Who The Folk?!
How did you get involved with Minnesota Hillel?
More than two years ago, I was approached by friend Josh Mann, and he was telling me about the transformation that Hillel was going through. They were trying to do more student outreach, building a new board, they had just hired a new executive director, and they were looking for someone with an HR background to be on the board and he had recommended me to [executive director] Benjie Kaplan.
So Benjie had already started at that time?
He had been there about a year and was trying to put a younger board together that could relate to students. And it was really exciting with all the initiatives they were trying to start.
Was it a difficult transition not coming from here or going to the U for undergrad?
I did get my MBA from Carlson so I have a degree from the U. I definitely felt like I wanted to give back to the school and the Jewish community. I wasn’t involved with Hillel at the University of Minnesota but was involved at the University of Michigan, and it was a great place for a sense of community, to meet with other Jewish students and it helped solidify the Jewish connection I have. Navigating, I remember going to the first board meeting and not knowing anyone there. It was trying to get to know each of the board members and see what Benjie was trying to drive. He and I would meet to talk through some of his goals. I think what I was impressed about was how engaged the board members were in trying to build community support for Hillel.
Do you think that has been successful?
I’m very impressed by the community support for board members. A lot of board members, including my husband and I, have hosted Shabbat dinner for the student. There’s a number of dinners that community members or board members can host. There are events at Hillel or outside in the community that can help build the brand that board members are a part of. Whether it’s raising funds for programming or building awareness for what students are facing on campus, board members are really involved in trying to get that story out. There’s a definite increase in anti-Semitism on campus the last couple years, and I think board members have helped support students to combat that.
Where you surprised when you were asked to be the next president?
Yes! I was surprised. I was honored to be asked to be in that role. I’ve been really impressed Benjie and the Hillel staff and other board members. I’m not from the University of Minnesota, so I don’t have that long history, but I do have a passion for the job and a passion for wanting to connect with the students and make it the best experience for them. It was an epiphany for me the other day to say it’s not about the board or anyone else: it’s about the student experience at Hillel. So how do we get them the fundraising dollars to have the programming they want? How do we make it a community that Jewish students will want to go here rather than, for example, Chicago or another city? We want to make sure they feel supported.
You mention Chicago, but with Madison, there is reciprocal tuition.
There’s competition there.
So what do you see as the next challenge Hillel faces?
I think there are a couple things. Time for students and how do we make more meaningful connections for them on campus. How do we increase our outreach for students? Now, it’s great and we’re reaching more Jewish students than we ever have, but there are many Jewish students that have never stepped foot in Hillel. So how do we continue to make it more meaningful for them to attract students? How do we get more fundraising dollars? We have a lot of agencies coming to the same community members for dollars, so how do we increase fundraising to have the vibrant student fundraising and support them. We’re also trying to have outreach at all Minnesota schools that have Jewish students, so I know the staff is working with Jewish students and staff and other campuses. How do we provide that type of outreach? As we add staff members or add responsibilities, we need to look at how we continue that outreach so that people can have that sense of community and Judaism. We’re going to be faced with so many things on campus, so it’s also how we support our students so they are comfortable expressing their Judaism and say they are involved with Hillel.
What makes Hillel so important?
I see Hillel as being the last opportunity to connect with students before adulthood. Maybe they came from an interfaith couple or maybe they didn’t have a Jewish education. This is the time to build their Jewish identity. It’s why we’re looking to hire a rabbi. We want Hillel to be a spiritual place too, not just a place for social movements. I think students want to come in and have discussions about Judaism; they want to have discussions about Israel and what it means to them.
Favorite Jewish holiday?
Can I pick more than one?
When I was growing up I really like Purim. I dressed up as Queen Esther and my mom and I would make hamantaschen together. Now she still overnights me hamentaschen, so it’s still a favorite of mine because I know the hamentaschen are coming. In adulthood – I don’t know if I’ve reached adulthood yet – I like Shabbat. I’m not Shomer Shabbat, but I don’t work on Saturday and I don’t check my emails, but it’s nice to take a day away.
Favorite Jewish food?
Bagel and cream cheese. I’m from New York.
Tickets are still available for Minnesota’s Hillel Maroon and Gold Shabbat. Click here to buy tickets.Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!