My Hillel Story | Dr. Dan Leshem
I was 13 when my beloved grandmother, my Safta, became angry as I chanted my bar mitzvah Torah portion for her. “Do you think a real god would have allowed the camps?” She had lost a father, sister–and really most of the people she knew—in the Holocaust, and the depth and passion in her question spurred me to spend 8 years of my life pursuing a Ph.D. in Holocaust survivor testimony. I spent another 12 at colleges and research institutions educating diverse groups about genocide and discrimination. Yet, even after all this study I had to admit that I still didn’t know how to answer my Safta’s question.
I thought I was putting this heaviness behind me two years ago when I left the field of Holocaust scholarship to join the Hillel movement as executive director of FSU Hillel. It would be joyous to spend time on the lighter aspects of life— how to connect with Jewish friends and choose kosher option rather than ponder brutality or starvation. So, I was surprised to find a thread of connection between my two careers. The threats to Jewish continuity are certainly not the same, thank God, as they were in our grandparents’ generation, but today’s students face a plethora of existential questions and challenges to identity that threaten their ability to live rich and meaningful lives.
This past summer, in the midst of Covid-19 wreaking havoc on our students’ lives, they looked to the past when confronting their present: anti-Semitism reared its ugly head during what should have been a quiet summer Senate session. Instead, our passionate and committed Hillel students took the lead and strengthened an important relationship with the Office of the President at FSU, ultimately bringing a strong statement by President John Thrasher condemning anti-Semitism.
When I arrived at FSU Hillel just a year ago, I found that it lacked the resources to support our students. Despite the dedicated support of the small but spirited local Jewish community, we did not have money to keep the lights on—much less cover staff and programming. In fact, although we have nearly 4,000 Jewish students—the 17th largest Jewish student population in North America—our campus spent the least per student in the entire Hillel movement. As I put the financial statements down, I was overwhelmed—only a miracle could turn things around.
But then I met students like Ranata, a rising sophomore who spent her summer break planning our entire High Holiday services schedule. Or Lara and Robyn, who planned 14 Shabbat dinners, two social justice programs, a get-out-the-vote campaign and a 21+ Israel-themed bar night. As I got to know more and more FSU students who were not intimidated by the challenges we faced, we set to work, recreating FSU Hillel as a hub of Jewish activity, reflective of the diverse needs and abilities of all 4,000 of those Jewish students who call Tallahassee home.
With great enthusiasm I can share with you that thanks to a year of state-wide focused and intense fundraising, FSU Hillel has secured over $400,000 in grant funding payable over three years, allowing us to expand our staff from one to four. We added an Assistant Director (who is, critically, also a social worker) and two student-facing staff: a Springboard Jewish Learning Fellow and a Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow. We invested in reinvigorating our space so that it is Covid-safe, functional and inviting for the broadest swath of students and activities. We rebuilt relationships across campus so that students would have an easier time finding our programs and offerings.
Despite all of this progress, our work has only just begun. Within the next two years, our grant-funded staff positions will need to be entirely funded locally by our Hillel. We cannot go backwards; in fact, to fully meet the needs of our growing Jewish population, we need to double our staff and our physical space by 2025! We celebrated Passover with 175 students at our last Seder and didn’t have room for more – Hillel should never have to turn away a student for lack of space. The highest achieving Hillels have student to staff ratios of 350-to-1 whereas we are now at 1000-to-1! With its new medical school and dramatic rise in the college rankings, we know that FSU is in the process of becoming the destination for Jewish students nationwide.
The way we choose to invest in our students has lasting implications on their lives and the Jewish community. Your support for FSU Hillel will help us sustain and build our professionally trained staff, add a Senior Jewish Educator and Engagement Coordinator, serve meals daily to the dozens of students who show up every day for a comfortable place to build community (and sometimes because money is tight and it’s the only warm meal they’ll have all day). We have to bring in a part-time social worker to provide counseling and emotional support to our students struggling with mental health challenges. We need to furnish our space appropriately so that we can host the wide variety of enrichment programs students ask for in a healthy and covid-safe manner. Of course, your investment in our building’s security will help ensure that our community is safe, welcoming and inclusive.
It is in the most unlikely of places that I find myself beginning to understand my Safta’s paradox. What I have come to understand is not that my Safta didn’t believe in God, but that she detested the view of God as the savior who would step in to rescue us. One must make his or her own way in life and not wait for the fates or divine providence. ‘Prayer never fed anyone,’ I can imagine her saying, ‘at least not in that place.’ We can’t wait for a miracle or rely solely on prayer to make the world we want for our children. While our faith is critical, so are the actions we take to invest in the youth that will inherit and create our future. With your support, FSU can become a hub for the next generation of Jewish leaders, inspired and committed to make a world that ensures future generations won’t have to grapple with the kinds of questions my Safta did.
With sincere gratitude for everything you do,
Dan Leshem, Ph.D.