Since the Hillel movement began 100 years ago, and more so, since Minnesota founded our Hillel in 1940, investing in vibrant and engaged Jewish communities and the development of college students’ Jewish identities has been a cornerstone of Twin Cities’ Jewish philanthropy and organizing.
2014 marked a turning point for Minnesota Hillel with new organizational leadership and strategic vision that led to significant success for Hillel on the University of Minnesota campus. With steady growth there, reaching hundreds of new students and philanthropic partners, Hillel leadership knew it was only a matter of time until the organization would widen its focus and evolve to serve students on campuses throughout the state.
Anticipating that future, in 2015 the organization officially changed its name from the “University of Minnesota B’nai Brith Hillel Foundations” to simply “Minnesota Hillel.” And in 2016, thanks to a supplemental grant from the St. Paul Jewish Federation, Hillel began initial efforts to reach a broader swath of students across the state.
While Hillel saw some success, Executive Director Benjie Kaplan realized that a key component was missing. Kaplan reflected, “Not having a full-time staff member committed to multi-campus efforts and relationship building caused those earlier efforts to fall short.”
With construction complete on the new Johnson Family Center for Jewish Student Life at the University of Minnesota in 2020, and having weathered the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2023-2024 academic year will start a new era for Minnesota Hillel.
Thanks to support from the Pat and Tom Grossman Transformational Fund of the Minnesota Jewish Community Foundation, former Temple Israel Director of Youth & Camping, Abby Kirshbaum, has joined the Hillel professional team to seek out, engage, and inspire students across the state. As Kaplan put it, “Abby is the missing piece we’ve been looking for to help ensure ALL students in Minnesota have a great Jewish experience in college, and beyond.”
One month in, Kirshbaum has been busy, “Throughout the past month I have been meeting with stakeholders at different universities to learn about what Jewish engagement looks like for students on those campuses and having discussions about how Hillel resources can make a difference. There is so much Hillel has to be proud of, yet so much more work that can be done to enrich the lives of students.”
In addition to traveling around the state to get a lay of the land, Abby spent time at Hillel International’s New Professionals Institute in St. Louis. There she was joined by colleagues from across North America to learn what is happening on other campuses, including several professionals who also serve multiple universities and colleges. Getting a better understanding of different Hillel models has allowed Kirshbaum to, “Notice that while the work we are doing to enrich the lives of students is similar, each campus has their own spin.”
Serving multiple campuses will require Kirshbaum to leverage what she’s learned, and continues to learn, to help Minnesota Hillel be flexible as it adapts to the different settings and cultures Jewish students find themselves in around the state.
What does, and should, Jewish community look like for students while they are away from home? Although this new blank canvas seems overwhelming, Kirshbaum knows that these tough questions are what make Hillel work so exciting and meaningful. As she puts it, “What’s more Jewish than being invigorated by tough questions?”
At Minnesota Hillel relationships are key. By adding a multi-campus-focused professional, Hillel is looking to engage and empower hundreds more students, working together with them to co-create not just programming—but a sense of connection and community.
As summer winds down and the academic year nears, the important work of identifying and reaching out to previously unengaged students is underway. If you are reading this article and thinking ‘I know someone at Duluth!’ or ‘My friend’s cousin is at St. Thomas!’… you can help!
Debbie Stillman is a Minnesota Hillel past president.