The Importance of Jewish Student Organizations on College Campuses

If the value in having Jewish student organizations on college and university campuses wasn’t clear before October 7, the past seven months have certainly made it clear. While it is easy to see the importance of having these organizations on bigger campuses with larger Jewish student populations (such as the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus), there is great value in having these organizations on smaller campuses as well. 

As I’m wrapping up my first year of college, I have found myself reflecting on how valuable my experience being involved in the Jewish community on my campus has been. I’m a student at Drake University which is a small, private university in Des Moines, Iowa. Unlike many of my Jewish peers from my childhood who attend schools like Columbia University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Minnesota, my campus has been quiet over the past seven months.

During my college search, the presence of a Jewish student organization on campus wasn’t necessarily a part of my college criteria, and when I first arrived on campus in August I had no plans to seek out a Jewish community at school. As it turns out, I didn’t have to seek out a Jewish community, the community found me. I ended up attending an event hosted by Drake Hillel the night before the semester started, and suddenly I found myself looking for opportunities to connect with other Jewish students on campus. In the weeks following October 7, I found myself leaning on those students as we all tried to process everything that was happening.

This is the value that organizations like Hillel bring to college campuses of all sizes. In the face of growing antisemitism around the world, these organizations provide Jewish students with a safe space to process difficult events such as what we have seen over the last seven months. This is especially true for colleges and universities with smaller Jewish student populations. Yes, being involved in Hillel has introduced me to people who have become some of my closest friends, and I have gotten the opportunity to take on leadership roles as a first-year college student. But beyond that, Hillel has given me a community of people who understand what it’s like to be a college student in an era of ever-increasing antisemitism. 

I am lucky to have amazing friends at school who aren’t Jewish themselves, but who have provided support whenever possible over the past several months. But having a Jewish community on campus has provided a different kind of support. Having people at school who were experiencing the same emotions as I was in the wake of October 7 helped me to feel less alone, something that I wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere on campus. 

It is so easy for Jewish college students to feel alone on campus. While my university campus has thankfully remained free of the protests and antisemitism that have plagued other academic institutions around the country, there have been many times when I have had to think about what I would do if something were to happen on campus; where protests would be likely to happen, and how I could avoid those places on my way to classes. The friends I have made through Hillel are the only people I have met at school who can relate to the experience of having to think about these things.

In a time when we as Jewish students are faced with increasing antisemitism on campuses, it is easy to feel ashamed of our Jewish identity. Organizations like Hillel provide us with a safe space to be proud of our religion and our culture. I keep thinking back to the first night of Passover, when I had the opportunity to lead Hillel’s seder. Hillel gave me a space to stand up in front of a room full of students and faculty and, without any fear or shame, say “L’shana haba’a b’Yerushalaim. Next year in Jerusalem.” At that moment, I had never been more thankful for the Jewish community that Hillel gave me.

These organizations provide Jewish students with a community that they may not be able to find elsewhere – especially at smaller schools where there are already fewer Jewish students on campus than at larger universities. Now more than ever, these communities are essential for creating a safe space for Jewish students, something that is so important in a world where those safe spaces have begun to feel less and less safe. No matter the size of a school’s Jewish student population, the importance of these student organizations is clear: These groups are valuable not just for the community they bring together, but for the safe and welcoming environment they provide.

Hannah Goldsmith is a Plymouth native and first-year student at Drake University. She is the student treasurer of Drake Hillel.