Hillel's Big Tent
- By Jay Goyette
SEDER: Translated from Hebrew into English, the word means “order.” And as UVM Hillel celebrates Passover in April, the seder dinner is, to a large extent, about order, ritual prayer and food and song. But it is also about the certain disorder you get when 140 college kids come together in the Davis Center—passing food, pouring grape juice, sharing stories, reaching hands across crowded tables adorned with candles.
As Matt Vogel, Hillel’s executive director, leads a prayer from the front of the room, there’s a sudden ruckus at one table. A candle has been tipped over, a paper napkin kindled. The moment isn’t about imminent danger, but embarrassed laughter. Vogel pauses in his prayer—jokes, “It isn’t a seder without a fire or burning bush”—and resumes the ritual.
“It’s like an extended family,” says junior Emily Goldhill, a political science major from London, England, and vice president of UVM Hillel. “I was always with family on Jewish holidays, so it’s really great to have that tradition I grew up with right here on campus.”
UVM’s seder mixes solemn reverence for Jewish tradition with whimsy like a performance by the Kosher Katz (billed as UVM’s only Jewish a cappella group). There are songs that all will remember from their own family celebrations, and there are opportunities to share personal traditions. One student stands up with his guitar and strums the chords to the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” and many sing along: “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine/And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung/Would you hear my voice come through the music/Would you hold it near as it were your own.”
The energy and deep bonds evident at the seder evening late in the spring semester illustrate what has been happening all academic year at UVM, as a major financial gift from an alumni family and the arrival of a dynamic new executive director have reinvigorated the UVM chapter of the organization that meshes Jewish faith with college life.
Hillel director Vogel says he was attracted to a career in the organization because of a deep-seated personal desire. “It sounds grandiose,” he says, but that amounts to an impulse “to change the world and, really, leave the world in a better place than where we found it. There’s a Jewish principle around that called tikkun olam, and it means ‘to repair the world.’”
While Vogel’s ultimate objective in helping shape the spiritual, moral, and emotional development of young people is global, it begins locally with building a vibrant UVM Hillel.
“We want to get to a place where students come to UVM because of the great Hillel,” he says. He sees UVM Hillel having tremendous potential to play a lead role in student and campus life, particularly in view of what he calls a “transformative” $1 million gift commitment from Dan ’55 and Carole Burack to enable the growth of Hillel’s activities and achieve higher visibility on campus.
“A gift of this magnitude enables us to do so much more, to be able to have the resources and the reach to bring in top speakers and top leaders, and to be able to hire interns who can build relationships. That’s the only way we can grow, and their gift gets us there.”
The Buracks’ investment in UVM Hillel and the possibilities that would open up were strong inducements for Vogel to take on the role of executive director for the Vermont organization. Vogel came to UVM last fall after a six-year stint in that same capacity at Baruch College in New York City, where he helped build the school’s Hillel organization into one of the nation’s most successful.
Dan Burack says he hopes his and Carole’s gift to Hillel will enhance the entire student experience at UVM. “Wherever you have an active, thriving Hillel on a college campus it’s good for campus life, good for the institution as a whole, good for students, faculty and the entire campus community,” he says. “The future is investing in young adults in the most formative period of their lives.”
Vogel says he loves working for Hillel and interacting with students on a daily basis because “that value of leaving the world in a better place than where we found it is a deeply Jewish value—particularly at UVM where so many students want to participate in public service and give back and really have that concern and consciousness for others around them.”
Peer-to-peer connections is one of the approaches Vogel says is key to building a strong and vital Hillel community. “It really is that theory of concentric circles,” he explains. “We asked our interns to build relationships with their core group of friends first and then their friends’ friends. It’s only by having a core group of students and staff that really understand it is relationships that matter, that we can really help Hillel become what it could be. And that means being a leader on campus in creating positive change.”
Though Vogel and his small staff provide critical support, UVM Hillel is a student organization. For academic year 2013-14, the student president has been Lauren Schlanger, a human development and family studies major who also competes on the varsity track and field team. Schlanger says her involvement with Hillel started early on in her time at UVM and became an increasingly important part of her experience every year.
Like many of her peers, Schlanger leans toward community involvement when she thinks about life after college. She’s been accepted for a position in a national organization called City Year, which works to bridge the gap in high-poverty communities between the support the students in these communities need and what their schools are designed to provide.
Her involvement in UVM Hillel was a definite influence on her outlook and direction, she says. For her first year or so, “I didn’t even know what I wanted out of my Jewish identity,” she says. “I had no idea how I wanted to shape it.” Schlanger gradually took on more responsibility, serving as Shabbat chair and a member of the UVM Hillel Student Board. “This year as the president of the student board I feel like a lot of what I do is to try and help others, so it’s not as much about understanding and forming who I am now, it’s more about helping others to do that.”
Schlanger says she expects UVM Hillel to become a real force for student engagement on campus under the direction of Matt Vogel. “He’s been great,” she says. “It’s a change for Hillel, but I think it’s been a positive change because he has a new perspective, new opinions on things coming from New York City where it’s very diverse. He’s trying to take an active role but also listen to what we have to say. ‘Dream big’ is what Matt always tells us.”
One of the areas where Vogel’s leadership and guidance have begun to invigorate Hillel’s mission and visibility on campus is in the area of outreach. He’s strengthened a network of student interns whose role is not only to raise awareness of Hillel programs and activities on campus, but to reach out to unengaged students and bring them under Hillel’s “big tent.”
“We have a group of six students we call our Peer Network Engagement Interns,” Vogel explains. “They’re hired to go out and build relationships with unaffiliated students, students that aren’t coming to UVM Hillel events. That to me is a success because it gets people thinking. It gets people thinking about how all the multiple identities they have come together in their lives—I’m a snowboarder. I’m an environmentalist. I’m a vegan. I’m an activist. I’m a business student. I’m Jewish. I’m a Catamount. All these sorts of things all happen at the same time.”
That approach seems to be working. UVM Hillel has doubled its participation rate and set ambitious goals to engage more than fifty percent of Jewish students at UVM by 2016. UVM Hillel is at what Vogel describes as “an opportune moment,” poised for dramatic growth, with an estimated Jewish student population of 2,000, solid support from the university, and an engaged alumni base led by a strong board of directors. This board of directors and advisory board includes two former UVM presidents (Ed Colodny and Dan Fogel), as well as former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin, members of the Burlington community, and UVM alumni and parents living outside of Vermont.
Vogel wants to see more campus-wide involvement in Hillel events like this year’s Passover seder in the Davis Center or the observation of the Jewish holiday Sukkot, which this year will coincide with UVM’s Reunion and Homecoming Weekend in the fall. “Sukkot is all about a connection to the land. It occurs during the harvest season, and we’ll be able to emphasize how we as Jews, and all people, are in touch with the land and the food and the changing of seasons, as well. So we’re working on some big things to coincide with Sukkot, perhaps a dorm-friendly farmer’s market and other ways for the campus community to connect in our open tent.”
While Hillel’s mission and vision are clearly focused primarily on the experience of the university’s Jewish student population, Vogel says, its values are strongly pluralistic, welcoming, and inclusive of all students on campus, regardless of religious affiliation.
“If we’re just doing Jewish programs for Jewish students, then we’re missing an opportunity to really effect positive change in the world,” Vogel says. “We have to be involved with the fabric of student life, and I think that there’s a lot that we all can do to help provide a great student experience.”
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