November 16, 2018

Hillel 818 Provides the ‘Jewish Heart’ for Valley Commuter Schools

At many universities, students look to Hillel for a welcoming Jewish campus community. But if there’s no residential campus and students are commuting from home to classes, is there still a need for Hillel? 

“Commuter schools need a strong Jewish heart more than the others do,” said Jay Sanderson, President and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Federation has been partnered with Hillel 818, which serves Cal State Northridge, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College since its reorganization in late 2014. 

Commuter students have different needs than residential students and are often short on time. However, they also tend to be highly motivated, said David Katz, Hillel 818’s executive director. 

“They have the drive and energy to put themselves through school and everything that comes with being a commuter student, and they make the time to be active Jewishly on campus,” he said. “They want a strong Hillel and they deserve it.” 

Hillel 818 serves one of the largest Jewish student populations in the United States, with “more Jews than at UCLA and USC combined,” Katz said. “But the Hillel playbook on a residential campus doesn’t work at Hillel 818. Hillel is a home away from home. We need to reimagine what a Hillel is when the student lives at home.” 

A core component of that reimagined Hillel model is finding out what is important to students and meeting them where they are. For instance, because 26 percent of their students identify as Persian, 12 percent as Russian and 11 percent as Israeli, Hillel 818 has three programs aimed at these “micro-communities,” which also provide a chance to build entry points into Hillel and into the greater community, Katz said.

A Russian restaurant event featuring Russian food, music and dance planned by a student intern drew 126 students, only 40 percent of whom were Russian, according to Katz. A Persian dinner drew over 100 students for Mizrahi (Jewish Eastern) music and Persian cuisine, and a post-Passover Moroccan Mimouna event attracted 70 students. Katz noted these as opportunities “to celebrate the richness of our Los Angeles Jewish community.”

When Sandra Faramarzi graduated from Milken Community High School and began her studies at Northridge, she was “startled” by the transition from a close-knit community to a university environment. But Hillel 818 and its “homey feel” made her believe she had found her place. Faramarzi sees the micro-community events as a chance to learn about new cultures but said that smaller events create a “nice, friendly circle” of people — in her case, other Persian students — who understand her cultural background. “It brings more people in because they can find a smaller group within a larger community,” the incoming junior said.

A core component of that reimagined Hillel model is finding out what is important to students and meeting them where they are. 

“Having grown up with a Jewish dad and non-Jewish mom who were both atheists, I didn’t start learning about my own Judaism until my 20s,” said board chairwoman Kathi Mangel, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and whose husband and daughter both graduated from Cal State Northridge. “There are a lot of students like that out there, who need a place to go to start learning about their own Judaism.”

Katz said that some students may have minimal Jewish knowledge or background. Hillel 818’s “unbiased pluralistic view” provides students with the opportunity to explore Jewish identity, including studying with an Orthodox rabbi and a female rabbinic intern. 

Hillel at Cal State Northridge was founded in 1960, and for over 50 years, Hillel was the Jewish address at that school, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College. Hillel was restructured in late 2014, and in April 2015, Katz began his role as executive director for Hillel 818. 

When he came to Cal State Northridge, Jonathan Goldenberg wanted to connect to an inclusive Jewish community, explore his own Jewish identity and find student leadership opportunities. 

“Hillel 818 did an incredible job addressing both of those points for me,” the alum wrote in an email, crediting Hillel 818’s support with enabling him to serve as the president of CSUN Students for Israel, the pro-Israel student organization on campus. “The institutional and moral support given to me by Hillel 818 allowed me to blossom in my role and truly grow as a person.”

Hillel 818 will  finish the 2018 fiscal year with a budget of $600,000, including a $206,830 from Federation. They are also receiving over $100,000 in grants from Hillel International for programming and staff support. And thanks to Federation and Hillel 818’s community donors, the Hillel building has been refurbished to the tune of $110,000, with renovations of the social hall, kitchen, a prayer space/conference room and a student lounge.

“Students come and study, bake challah, cook Shabbat dinner, do their homework, play PlayStation,” Katz said. “It’s home base where they can park their car, hang out and walk to campus for class. They’ve turned our space into their space.” 

“At Hillel 818, there’s something for everybody,” Faramarzi said. “If you like to hike a lot, or like to go bowling, or want a gym buddy, you can find whatever you need within this community. Even if you don’t know what you are looking for, you can find something for you here.”

Sanderson is pleased with what he called a “significantly dramatic increase in engagement” since Federation began its investment in Hillel 818, whose efforts have increased student engagement from 300 in 2015 to more than 1,400 at the close of the 2017-18 academic year. Staffing has also increased, Katz noted, from three to six full-time professionals, and Hillel 818 will likely add two more this year.

Looking ahead, the team is thinking about sustainability, including improvements on the 30-year-old building and a potential future endowment. Alumni identification and engagement will play a huge role. 

For Katz, this is about more than today’s campus engagement. Because 98 percent of Hillel 818 students are from, and likely to stay in, the Los Angeles area, “this is an investment in our community. They will make up the future leadership. If we don’t engage them now, we won’t be able to engage them in the future,” he said.

 “We’re only scratching the surface of what this Hillel could be.”