Jewish students build dynamic, inclusive community on campus
December 18, 2009
In the course of senior Eli Cohn’s time at Lewis & Clark, Jewish life on campus has been completely transformed. Last year, Cohn and a group of Lewis & Clark students reinvented the once-dormant Jewish Student Union as Lewis & Clark’s chapter of Hillel, an international organization of Jewish college students. The formation of the Greater Portland Hillel, which serves several college campuses in the area, has brought together hundreds of students around the community and fostered increased understanding between individuals of all faiths.
Now in its second year, Hillel has become one of the most dynamic student groups at Lewis & Clark, with events ranging from weekly coffee get-togethers to monthly Shabbat dinners to Hanukkah and Purim parties, with students gathering to cook, play games, and enjoy shared cultural and religious traditions.
The Lewis & Clark community also welcomed its first Jewish leader this year, when Rabbi Jonathan Seidel joined the Chapel as adjunct Jewish chaplain. Rabbi Seidel’s arrival added momentum to what many community members say is an exciting time for the Jewish community at Lewis & Clark.
Here, several people involved with Hillel reflect on the ways in which the Jewish community has taken shape over the past couple of years and what it means both for the campus and the Portland community.
How do you feel the Jewish community at Lewis & Clark has changed throughout your time here?
Eli Cohn ’10, philosophy major from Minneapolis, MN: Jewish life at Lewis & Clark today would be wholly unrecognizable to someone on this campus four years ago, and all the changes have been for the better. When I got to Lewis & Clark, the Jewish Student Union was largely inactive; there was a meeting at the beginning of the year, and an annual Passover Seder, but that was it. Now, we offer a full array of weekly, Shabbat, holiday, cultural, and social-action programming. The Greater Portland Hillel, and the people who made the Hillel happen, are responsible for that change.
What inspired you to become involved in the transition from the Jewish Student Union to something more expansive?
Nicole Pampanin ’11, sociology/anthropology major from Los Angeles, CA: It is very easy to get lost and stray away from your religious beliefs when you go away to college and are on your own. Without your parents or grandparents encouraging you to go to a Passover Seder or celebrate Rosh Hashanah, it is easy to make up excuses and not attend these events. Before going to college, I attended a religious school. During my freshman year at Lewis & Clark, I did not feel like the Jewish community at Lewis & Clark was very strong or welcoming, and as a result I only participated in a few Jewish events on campus. It was difficult for me to not be a part of a Jewish community that first year of college. When Amy Penner and I became co-presidents of the Jewish club on campus, we decided that we needed to make sure that all Jewish as well as non-Jewish students who were interested in Judaism felt welcomed and could become a part of the Jewish community. I truly believe that the Hillel chapter at Lewis & Clark, as well as the Greater Portland Hillel, are some of the most open and welcoming communities you can find anywhere.
How has being involved with Hillel changed or shaped your personal experience of Judaism?
Amy Penner ’11, psychology and Hispanic Studies double major from Newport Beach, CA: For me, being a part of Hillel at Lewis & Clark has given me a way to stay involved with Judaism and create my own Jewish identity at school. I am not very religious, but Judaism is a big part of my family at home. At Lewis & Clark, we have created our own small Jewish community, and it is very comfortable and fun to feel a part of it. I think that students who either are Jewish, but not very religious, or are simply interested in Judaism have had a chance to explore and connect with Judaism in a fun, casual, and non-intimidating way that is not strictly religious.
What is the function of the Greater Portland Hillel, and how does it support the work being done by the Lewis & Clark chapter?
Rachel Hall, managing director, PDX Hillel: I see Hillel as the facilitator, the entity that gets all the right people to talk to each other, to connect. We help students access spiritual leaders in the community, as well as empower them to create a Jewish community on campus that is supportive and reliable. Hillel helps connect students to the local Jewish community, and vice versa. It’s kind of a magnetic force. In our first year, I estimate that about 300 students in Portland have heard of us and about 200 of those students have attended one of our events. Now that there is a Hillel presence in Portland, I meet a new student who identifies as Jew-“ish” every week. And, of course, “ish” is wonderful. So many students say “I’m not that Jewish,” or, “I’m only a little Jewish,” which always makes me laugh. We are here to celebrate everyone’s background. One of Hillel’s strongest attributes is that Hillel International allows each campus to tailor their Hillel to fit. This allows Lewis & Clark students to shape their Hillel uniquely, and also have the benefit of being tied to an organization that helps provide them with resources they would otherwise have little to no access to. They receive funds that are used to educate their campus and provide cultural programs and tons of inter-faith opportunities.
Given your role, coordinating the work students from schools all around Portland are doing with Hillel, what stands out to you about the community at Lewis & Clark?
Hall: Lewis & Clark staff and students are flexible, excited, and enjoy interfaith work. I love working with the Lewis & Clark campus because the administration so clearly wants what the students want—and the students wanted to create a Jewish presence on campus. Mark Duntley, dean of the chapel, and Celestino Limas, dean of students, and others have been so responsive to Jewish programming and have been very supportive to PDX Hillel in general.
How does Lewis & Clark’s Hillel chapter meet the unique needs of the campus community?
Pampanin: We know that most students at Lewis & Clark are not interested in attending synagogue on a weekly basis or partaking in extreme religious practices, and we plan our events accordingly. We host events ranging from Passover Seders to Shabbat dinners to Hanukkah and Purim parties. I think that our events are generally a mix between a culturally Jewish event and a religiously Jewish event with a whole lot of fun thrown in. We welcome every student who is Jewish, Jew-curious, or Jew-interested.
What sorts of activities have you participated in with PDX Hillel, and what aspects of those experiences have had the greatest impact on you?
Rikki Wynn’12, theatre major from Mercer Island, WA: I went to Israel on a Birthright trip last summer with the Portland Hillel. We went all over Israel and met Israeli soldiers. It reminded me why I enjoy being Jewish. I’m now starting to think about taking Hebrew and I want to go back to Israel soon. I feel like being Jewish is a bigger part of who I am than it was before: it’s given me a Jewish community, something I didn’t have at home, which makes me want to be Jewish and teach people about what it is to be Jewish. I’m not kosher, I don’t go to Synagogue every week, but I don’t think that’s what being Jewish is about. It’s about being true to yourself and being respectful of other people and that’s what I want people to think when they hear that someone is Jewish.
Pampanin: I have organized a range of events, but the most meaningful event that I’ve organized was in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), when two Holocaust survivors spoke about their experiences. The event attracted a large number of Jewish and non-Jewish students. I hope that a similar event can be carried out again this year, because we are the last generation with the privilege to hear firsthand stories from Holocaust survivors.
What events sponsored by Lewis & Clark’s Hillel chapter have you been a part of, and what was memorable about those experiences?
Wynn: We have a weekly coffee group, “Vent with a Venti,” coordinated by Eli Cohn, which is really great. I also help organize Shabbat dinners, which we try to do at least once a month. I bake challah for the dinners—I love to bake and cook so I’m usually one of the people in charge of the food aspect of events. I also organized the Hannukah party we held on December 10 in the main lounge of Platt. Students did the cooking for it and the whole Hillel community was invited.
Penner: We planned a mock bar mitzvah party last year, where students were invited to dance and experience what a bar mitzvah party is typically like. And I took a big part in planning the Seder last spring, which was particularly memorable because we did a short skit to demonstrate the story of Passover to students who may not have known. It was silly, but very fun. In Hillel at Lewis & Clark, we open our doors to everyone and anyone and strive to create fun activities to foster understanding about the Jewish faith. A couple of students have said that, though they wouldn’t consider themselves religious, the community of students they’ve bonded with through Hillel has sparked a renewed or deeper interest in their cultural and religious traditions.
What has been the impact of Rabbi Seidel’s presence in the community this year, in conjunction with the success of Hillel?
Mark Duntley, dean of the chapel: This is one of the most promising periods for the Jewish community at Lewis & Clark. If you told me ten years ago that we’d be where we are today, I would have said, “That’s wonderful, but how did it happen?” The Jewish community here now has the support of the Greater Portland Hillel, the Lewis & Clark Hillel, and an adjunct Jewish chaplain. Since I was first hired at Lewis & Clark 21 years ago, I’ve always wanted to have a Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish presence in the chapel. Rabbi Seidel joined our community in March and has been involved in events such as the Hannukah party and a Shabbat service that was held during New Student Orientation. In my time here, the Jewish community has never before had such robust support, so this is a very exciting time for our campus.
Overall, what do you think Hillel has offered to the Jewish student community in Portland?
Cohn: Jews like to think of themselves as welcoming, but until the creation of the Hillel there was no place for many college-aged Jews in Portland to find a home. Each campus that the PDX Hillel serves has a unique personality. By combining campuses into the PDX Hillel, these identities are uncompromised, while at the same time, we have the opportunity to come together and learn from one another. I have never been as proud of anything as I am of my work with the PDX Hillel. When I look back and see how much we have accomplished in such a short time, I know there is no better way I could have spent the past two years.
To learn more about how to get involved with Hillel at Lewis & Clark, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit pdxhillel.org to learn more about the Greater Portland Hillel.