Many people do not make an immediate link from speed dating, hookah and camel rides to a religious organizations on campus at a college or university.
However, at the University of Miami Hillel, one of the Jewish student organizations on campus, these activities thrive and draw in members of our college community, even those not of the Jewish faith.
“One of the things I like about Hillel as a Christian is it gets me in touch with the history of my religion. Their traditions are also our traditions,” said Allison Norris, a sophomore who is involved with both Baptist Christian Ministries and Hillel.
Norris is on the leadership team at BCM and frequents events at Hillel as well. She credits Hillel’s success to its emphasis on Israeli culture rather than being based solely on the Jewish religion.
They feature traditional Shabbats on Fridays, many of which have a special theme or speaker that appeals to students, religious or not. On Sept. 4, University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala’s appearance at Shabbat drew massive crowd regardless of religion.
“I noticed that some of you invited your non-Jewish friends to join us tonight and I think that’s really important because that’s UM,” said Shalala at this event.
UM Hillel Rabbi Baruch Plotkin remarked on this mixed crowd at this event.
“Pluralism is accepted in every part of this community,” Plotkin said to the Shabbat attendees. “And I’m sure we even have Jews who don’t believe in God here.”
Sophomore Sam Gitlitz is currently a student intern at Hillel. However, her family background is not one deeply centered on Judaism.
“It was always there, but I never got to share it with anyone,” Gitlitz said of Judaism’s presence in her upbringing.
Gitlitz has been involved with Hillel ever since Shabbat with Shalala at the start of her freshman year and admits that such student-friendly events were the initial draw for her to enter Hillel.
However, the cultural connection and mission to promote awareness about Israel is what kept her returning.
“It did it for me. I came for the commercial events, the visual stuff. They are very connected to Israel. They want everyone talking, keeping it alive,” Gitlitz said.
By the numbers, only 13 percent of the student population identify themselves as Jewish according to the fall 2008 edition of the University of Miami Fact Book.
However, the liberal and inclusive outlook of Hillel keeps the spirit alive and the voice of Judaism loud on campus at UM, despite the religion’s relatively small representation in the student body.
“We respect everybody’s differences. We take great pride in being the best of the best,” Shalala said.