Hello – my name is Michael Simon, and I’m the Executive Director of Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University. It is my honor and pleasure to again welcome you to our High Holiday services.
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I’m now in my third year at NU Hillel, and one of the big perks of living near campus is that I get to walk to work. Most of the time, this is a very pleasant experience – the view of the lake, the beautiful grounds of the campus, the smiling faces of students and townspeople (and the furrowed brows of professors) going about their day.
This is particularly true of summer in Evanston, when my walks feature warm breezes flowing off the lake, folks seated outside of bars and cafes, and a somewhat slower pace. Except, of course, for one aspect of my summer walks: (pause) construction.
After two years here, I am no longer surprised to see the tractors and piles of dirt and orange detour signs that dot campus pretty much the minute families leave after Commencement. I have become accustomed to traversing torn-up streets and passing by work sites seemingly every hundred feet.
But this summer, I was surprised by one feature of the construction – the signs posted outside of many of the projects on the NU campus that included the following prompts?
· What are we doing?
· What’s in it for you?
· When will it be completed?
So, for example, when you walk by Deering Library, you’ll see what they’re doing: the original entrance is being renovated and prepared to be reopened. And what’s in it for you: easier public access to the NU library. And when will it be completed: fall 2012 (hopefully).
This got me thinking: what if we turned those questions back to our own work? How would NU Hillel answer the prompts:
· What are we doing?
· What’s in it for you?
· And when will it be completed?
What are we doing?
Every day, NU Hillel is working to deepen Jewish identity and enrich the lives of young Jewish adults so that they can – and do – enrich the Jewish community and the world beyond. We work to create meaningful experiences that enable our students to explore their Jewish identity within the context of what it means to be human.
While we are not tearing up roads, or building a new building (thankfully, Fiedler Hillel at 629 Foster is in great condition), NU Hillel is in the midst of a different kind of construction project. We are continuing to build an excellent staff team and to develop our network of support among alumni, parents, and community members. I’m thrilled that, following a national search, we succeeded in bringing Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg to our staff. Danya has already built a reputation as one of the most dynamic and thought-provoking rabbis in the country, and I am confident that our students will be both meaningfully challenged and deeply enriched by their interactions and connections with her.
In 5772, NU Hillel enjoyed a stellar year, connecting hundreds of students to Jewish life on campus and beyond. Groups like Challah for Hunger and Shireinu A Cappella continued to thrive. Dozens of students organized our first-ever Mega-Shabbat, a campus-wide Friday night dinner held in Allison Hall that drew over 400 participants. And nearly 100 students traveled on immersion journeys to Cuba, Buenos Aires, New Orleans, and Israel.
With the addition of Rabbi Ruttenberg and the continuing development of our staff and student leadership, we will do even more in 5773 to inspire every Jewish student to make a meaningful and enduring commitment to Jewish life.
What’s in it for you?
At a time when we hear constant laments about young Jews being disconnected, NU Hillel is demonstrating that Judaism is relevant and vital, and our students and alumni are providing leadership and creativity to both the Jewish community and the world at large.
If you’re a student, what’s in it for you is opportunity. At Hillel, we work relentlessly to open every path, window, and door for our students to make a connection that strengthens their particular Jewish identity in the context of being a universal human. Whether you’re interested in journalism, spirituality, tikkun olam, Israel, environmentalism, or the arts, Hillel has something to offer you. And if we don’t yet have something you’re looking for, we’ll help you create it – that’s how the Jewish Theater Ensemble came to be over a decade ago, and how Challah for Hunger began two years ago. Our next big initiative? That’s up to you!
If you’re a parent, an alum, a community member, or just someone who is interested in Jewish life, what’s in it for you is a glimpse of the Jewish future. College campuses in general, and Northwestern in particular, is a place where young people are exploring who they are and who they would like to become, both individually and as a community. For our Jewish students, it is a place to build a unique pluralistic community for themselves away from home, to pursue tzedek through action, to engage with Israel, and to explore traditional texts and themes through a modern lens.
The construction project we’re undertaking is a scale model of the Jewish future. The structure that we are building at Northwestern is important – we want to have a rich, vibrant, and meaningful Jewish community at 629 Foster Street and throughout campus. But what’s more important is the portable toolkit we’re providing each student who connects with Hillel. It’s portable so that, as these students become young alumni, they can bring an understanding of Jewish community, a commitment to Jewish peoplehood, a relationship with Israel, and an excitement about Jewish life to the families they will create and the communities of which they will become a part.
When will it be completed?
As it is written in Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of our Fathers 2:21): Lo Alecha Ha-m’lacha Ligmor, v’lo atah ben-choreen le-hibatel mimenah – It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.
So this is one way in which our construction project differs a bit from Deering Library and some of the others you see on campus – there is no completion date. (Actually, some of the ones on campus may share that aspect)
But, connected to that, there’s another way our project differs from ones like Deering – ours is a project in which everybody can – and should – participate. Ours is not a construction site with a high fence and a sign outside, where we walk around and peer in and, sometimes, awkwardly try to avoid walking on wet cement or falling on an uneven ripped-up pavement. There are no hard hats or special gear required, because this is a project for all of us.
We need excellent, invested students to continually push us to elevate Hillel’s programming and activities. We need those who are not as connected to become more connected and to develop ways to make Judaism come alive for their peers and friends.
And we need parents, alumni, and friends like you to support our efforts. All of this great work costs over $1 million per year, and we receive almost no direct funding from the University. We are grateful for the support of our Board of Directors, the Jewish Federation of Chicago, and other generous donors. Your contributions are the bricks and mortar that lay the foundation for our efforts and provide us with the shovels and power tools (and the bagels and cream cheese) that enable us to reach hundreds of current students and to continue to engage alumni in connections to Jewish life. We are deeply grateful for every contribution that helps us to create positive, hopeful ways to affirm our Judaism, and we thank you for making an extra effort in the coming year to partner with us as we engage more students than ever before and as we continue to enliven Jewish life at Northwestern and beyond.
But while we need your funding, we also need your participation. In my letter in the “Return Again” brochure that many of you are holding, I say that during the high holidays NU Hillel becomes an intergenerational community of students, parents, faculty, staff, visitors, and seekers from Evanston and beyond. What would it mean for this intergenerational community to continue throughout the year? How can you become more connected to our events, our programming, and – most importantly – our students? I invite you to share your ideas, suggestions, and your time and energy in making this as vibrant a community as it can be.
As I close, I want to thank the generous donors who have helped to make these High Holidays such a beautiful event (and in particular Judy and Abel Friedman, for the wonderful flowers that adorn this stage and for all that you both do to support Jewish life at Northwestern). I want to thank all of the Hillel staff members, student staff and volunteers, ushers, security personnel, and community volunteers who make these High Holidays possible. An extra special thank-you to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and Operations Manager Rachael Swetin for their tireless work and able leadership in coordinating the High Holidays this year. And a special shout-out to Mickey Cartagena, our custodian, who once again did a lot of the literal heavy lifting to bring books and other items to our High Holiday service locations.
On behalf of my wife Claire and our son Jacob (who is celebrating his second High Holidays!), and on behalf of NU Hillel: Shana tova u’metuka – may each and every one of you have a sweet, healthy, and happy New Year.