DECEMBER 28, 2017 – MEDFORD – When Rabbi Jeff Summit first arrived on the Tufts campus as Hillel director in 1979, his office was in a tiny closet, which became usable only after two students removed a refrigerator. Now, 39 years later, Summit soon will be stepping down as head rabbinical leader, confident that Tufts Hillel’s strong reputation will continue to attract outstanding leadership.
A lot has changed over Rabbi Summit’s tenure at Tufts. In the early days, the goal was to get people to come to Friday night Shabbat dinners. Over the following 15 years, attendance slowly rose from 12 to as many as 150, spurred by innovative programming such as a kosher gourmet cooking content.
By the time a beautiful new Hillel center opened in 1994, about 300 to 400 students were involved with the organization in some way. Yet Rabbi Summit had a greater vision. “We were really busy with great things happening every week,” he said. “But we still were failing to reach 800 Jewish students.”
That realization spurred Summit into action, and he and his team began developing a whole new set of programming initiatives focused around something the students cared deeply about: social justice. These innovative programs included Moral Voices, which focused on topics including reproductive rights, children’s advocacy, and gun violence; Read by the River, a children’s literacy program; and Challah for Hunger, a weekly fund-raising activity to benefit the needy. Other initiatives were centered on health and wellness, Holocaust and genocide education, and interfaith programming.
“We shifted from thinking of Hillel as a specific building where activities took place to a series of programs that could happen anywhere on campus,” said Summit. “We may see between 70 and 200 students at Hillel on a Friday night, but we’re also actively cultivating four, five, or maybe six different venues around campus where Shabbat dinners may be taking place.”
Another big change was the more-welcoming attitude toward students of all backgrounds, regardless of their heritage or knowledge of Judaism. “When I first came into this work, people still actively talked about preventing students from intermarrying,” said Summit. “We often found that students whose parents were intermarried were among the most engaged and knowledgeable about their Jewish roots. Being open and loving as an organization has worked to engage many more students than making them feel like they aren’t Jewish enough.”
Finally, Rabbi Summit is quick to acknowledge the impact social media has had on the organization in recent years, both good and bad. On the positive side, platforms like Facebook have made it far easier to spread the word about upcoming initiatives and programs, and Hillel’s face-to-face culture has been a welcome respite for many students otherwise tethered to their phones and computers.
But that easy flow of information also has been a double-edged sword. “If there is a controversial topic online on a student-run website, for example, I will quickly hear from parents who may be upset, whereas a few decades ago, it would be a complete non-issue,” said Summit. “Social media has the power to dramatically distort the significance of things happening on campus.”
Tufts Hillel has become a national model, primarily through its many social justice programs. The recipient of dozens of awards, its unique brand of programming has been widely emulated and Summit often consults with other colleges seeking to advance their own groups.
Fortunately for the Tufts community, Summit will not be leaving campus entirely. He will continue his work as a music professor, and also will be working alongside Hillel International to develop and promote new Jewish programming.
“I’m not ready to leave just yet,” he said.