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Students find their Jewish identity with Salem State’s Hillel

Journal Correspondent

A self-defense course for women was just part of the programming offered by Salem State University’s Hillel this year.

JUNE 15, 2017 – SALEM – According to a study by the Avi Chai Foundation, membership in a campus Hillel “is one of the strongest predictors of future Jewish leadership – stronger than Jewish day school enrollment, Jewish camp experiences, or membership in a Jewish youth group.”

Look to the small but growing Hillel on Salem State University’s campus to realize that promise is already being fulfilled. According to incoming president and rising senior Becky Green of Weymouth, the opportunity to grow the small group takes commitment, collaboration, good decision-making, and creative thinking, all hallmarks of effective leadership.

Like most Salem State Hillel participants, Becky comes from an interfaith family. “My dad is Jewish,” she said, “but my mom is not. My dad is pretty much non-observant, so I grew up disconnected from my ‘Jewish self.’ Arriving on campus, I felt drawn to Hillel as a way to learn more about my culture and faith.”

Deborah Melnick, Hillel’s adviser and an adjunct English professor at the university, said Green’s story is typical.

“Coming largely from mixed-faith marriages where religious education was either minimal or nonexistent, the population we serve is both curious and, in some cases, longing to belong to something,” she said.

Hillel’s activities are open to all students, and non-Jews frequently participate in programming  out of interest in the faith, Jewish history and culture, and plain curiosity.

“Our monthly Shabbat dinners, which we hold on campus, are fully representative of Salem State’s diversity,” said Melnick. “Some months it’s standing room only.”

Today’s Salem State Hillel represents the revival of a chapter that was active in the 1980s. In 2012, together with a student, Melnick began its comeback. Combined Jewish Philanthropies provided seed money and local donors “have been generous,” Melnick said. The organization receives no funding from the university, and has no dedicated “home” on campus; meetings and events are held in various venues.

The group participates in the Hatikvah Israel Defense Forces Officers Mission, through which students meet with Israeli soldiers who visit campus annually. The Salem State Hillel also has heard from Anti-Defamation League representatives about confronting anti-Semitism on campus, and has brought Klezmer music to the university.

Students are welcome at all local temples, but Hillel has an especially strong connection with Marblehead’s Temple Sinai and Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez. The rabbi visits every semester for a bagel brunch, and encourages students to participate in Birthright Israel, free trips to Israel for young adults. In the last few years, five Salem State students have made the trip.

Finding Jewish students on campus is not easy, said Melnick. This fall, working with the enrollment office, Hillel will send its members to meet freshmen and transfer students who self-identify as Jewish. They’ll be handed a welcome bag containing a Hillel T-shirt, snacks, a mezuzah, and other gifts.

Melnick and Green hope the personal interaction will attract new students.

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