Sami Rahamim has been active in the local Jewish community, as president of Students Supporting Israel and vice president of Israel programming at Minnesota Hillel. Now, he’s taking his Minnesota pride and bringing it to the global Jewish community on Hillel International’s Board of Directors. So, Who the Folk?! is Sami Rahamim?
Tell me about why you got involved with Hillel when you first came to college?
I’ve been connected to Jewish communities my whole life, from local at the Minneapolis Jewish Day School, to taking a gap year in Israel the year before college. Then, it was natural and obvious that I would be involved with the Jewish community on campus here at the U. I feel very lucky to have come in my freshman year, which was Benjie Kaplan’s “freshman year” as director. And there’s kind of a special bond there, that we both came in at the same time and were sort of figuring things out together. That was one of the big things that drew me in. Pretty much instantly, Benjie and I felt we had a lot in common, from having the same teacher in Israel almost 20 years apart, to having both lost a parent within the last couple years. We just had a very similar outlook and vision for the Jewish community on campus and in the Twin Cities in general. And so I think that was the first thing that really drew me in to say, “okay this is a place I want to dedicate a significant part of my college experience.”
How has Hillel had an impact on you so far?
It has allowed me to really grow as a leader, a Jewish leader specifically. In many different ways, I’ve been certainly challenged as much as, or even more than, I could’ve ever imaged as a Jewish leader. Needing to organize people, inspire people, and to balance all of that with still just being a student and trying to do well academically and have a social life outside of Hillel, too. I feel like through that experience, I’ve been able to grow as a person so much more than I ever could’ve imagined had I not been involved with Hillel.
How did your involvement in Hillel grow from local-level interest to national and international?
I’ve always paid attention to the Jewish community on a global scale, but that especially peaked during my gap year. Each Masa program sent one representative to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly . They do it every year in Washington, and every fifth year in Jerusalem, and I just happened to be on my gap year in Jerusalem that year. I was selected as a representative to go. That was right around the same time that the big Pew Center report came out that was talking about Jewish identity and community engagement in the U.S. It scared a lot of the establishment of the community into a wake up call of “We’re losing some of our people.” It was just another moment that comes to mind in many, many events in my life where there’s this re-dedication to being a Jewish leader and living a Jewish life. Not just here, in caring about my community in Minneapolis, but for the future of Israel and the future of American Jewish support for Israel, and for a strong Jewish identity for Jews living in America and the rest of the diaspora, too. And so when I was made aware of this opportunity to be a voice for students not just in the states, but all over the globe, I figured there was no reason not to apply.
What are your responsibilities as a Hillel International Board member?
First and foremost, it’s to bring the student perspective to what is mostly the a board in the 40- to 60(-year-old) range. It’s an unusually big board for a non-profit organization. It’s about 40 people. And I noticed it’s a lot of people from the coast — from New York, from California — and I think it’s a little bit different to be a Jewish college student at a school like the University of Minnesota versus UCLA or NYU. And as an Israeli American, that’s a different perspective I bring as well. So I guess they felt I was bringing a lot to the table in terms of experience and geographic diversity, things like that. There are only four board meetings throughout the year — and unfortunately I missed the first one, because I was still in India studying abroad — but I stayed up around 2:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. on a conference call. Just to be able to listen and type in on the Skype chat from the other side of the world really kind of a cool experience in itself.
What are you goals for your year on board?
We are living in very challenging times. It’s kind of uncharted territory in many respects, as far as the way that people are communicating with each other, in terms of the geopolitical landscape, in terms of these divides in America which naturally will also affect and create some division within the Jewish community. And so one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned through my Jewish education is the importance of Jewish unity. We’re a pluralistic community for sure that can have a million different viewpoints in ways to practice Judaism and support Israel, and at the end of the day, we work together and stand up for ourselves and our neighbors, too. I think there are some key Jewish values that can help us navigate these uncharted, stormy waters that I want to make sure Hillel, as the largest Jewish student organization in the world, doesn’t lose sight of and keeps at the forefront of reaching out in solidarity to our fellow Muslim students. I think it’s obvious and fair to say that we’re seeing an increase in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in public debates, in rhetoric coming from official government offices, and I think there are still some in the Jewish community that say these people are my enemy. But that is the opposite approach that we need to be taking right now, and I would hope to use this national platform as an opportunity to build bridges and to try to close some of those divides.
What are you most excited for this semester at Minnesota Hillel?
I miss being around! I was gone first semester and I really did have some “fomo” when thinking about all the Shabbat, all the Israel programing — those are my two favorite things about Hillel. On the student board here leading the Israel committee, I’m trying to think outside the box in terms of doing creative programming that reaches outside just the Jewish community and engages with the larger campus community. I’m also counting down the days to Maroon and Gold Shabbat. I get to hand off the leadership award to the next recipient. And the Israel block party; there’s a lot to look forward to.