‘Building A Strong Jewish Life’ on Campus
Noah Katz arrived at Stetson University without knowing much about Jewish student life on campus.
“That wasn’t a big thing to me. It wasn’t something I thought Stetson could provide,” said Katz, a junior in the Honors Program and a history major.
But Katz knows many Jewish students prefer to attend a college with a thriving Jewish community on campus.
Last year, Katz became involved in Hillel at Stetson and this year is president of the Jewish student organization as it launches a new chapter on campus. In the past, Stetson belonged to the Central Florida Hillel, based at the University of Central Florida and serving students from UCF, Stetson, Rollins College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
As president of Stetson’s new independent Hillel, Katz hopes to help create “a strong Jewish life” on campus by providing religious services and kosher food for students, as well as having more Jewish faculty and possibly adding a minor in Judaic Studies.
“Having an emboldened Hillel is just a stepping stone to having an emboldened Jewish life at Stetson,” he said.
Stetson is now advertising to hire an Assistant Director of Admissions/Hillel Program Coordinator. The new position is funded through donations to the university and will help to recruit Jewish students, and provide more activities and services for them on campus.
“We’re really seeing this as a community engagement initiative because there’s so much in the Jewish community that is not just religious but is also communal, political and social,” said Joel Bauman, Stetson’s Vice President of Enrollment Management, who is spearheading the search team and will oversee the new position.
“What’s really impressive about Hillel is a real deep focus on activism, engagement in community and inclusiveness in community,” he added.
The Central Florida Hillel has been a good partner for Stetson, providing services and activities, such as delivering kosher meals and special food in observance of Jewish holidays. And the Hillel center at UCF is named for Jeffrey Ginsburg, a Stetson alumnus.
About 150 to 200 students, who identify themselves as Jewish, are accepted at Stetson each year. But only about 10 percent end up attending Stetson, Bauman said, adding that the number is a little low compared to other demographic groups.
“Absolutely families will say I don’t want my child to feel isolated. I want there to be a community. I want them to continue some of the same experiences they’ve had growing up,” Bauman explained.
Stetson would like to change that and encourage more Jewish students to select Stetson, reflecting the university’s commitment to interfaith initiatives and diversity.
Katz, the president of Stetson’s Hillel, said he would like to one day see an endowment at Stetson to hire more Jewish-area professors, and add more classes about Judaism and even the minor in Jewish Studies. The endowment also could include funding for a lecture series, bringing in top speakers to talk about issues related to Judaism, Israel and the Holocaust.
Stetson also is working to provide hot kosher meals in a designated section of the Commons Dining Hall, Bauman said. The meals will be delivered by a kosher kitchen in nearby Ormond Beach. And Central Florida Hillel also has delivered some kosher meals in the past from its industrial kosher kitchen.
“There are requirements for kosher food, so the ability to have kosher food is fundamental to have a Jewish community on campus,” Bauman said, adding that families of prospective students “talk about kosher food. They talk about continuing to be able to practice their faith and being able to participate in cultural and social engagement activities.”
Stetson’s new Hillel coordinator will work with Rabbi Barry Altman, an adjunct professor of Religious Studies at Stetson, as well as Lindsey Graves, Assistant Director of Interfaith Initiatives, and Stetson’s three chaplains to raise the visibility and offerings for Jewish students, as well as non-Jewish students interested in Judaism.
Graves said Stetson also may start a chapter of a Jewish business fraternity on campus and will help Hillel in organizing trips for Jewish students to visit their homeland through Birthright Israel.
“Hillel is really more than a student organization as we think of it,” Graves said. “It can definitely be spiritual. It can definitely be the development of a holistic person. It’s a multifaceted organization.”
About 50 Stetson students currently are members of Hillel, said Katz, who spent a gap year in Israel before attending Stetson. He also has worked at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and would like to work there again after graduating. One day, he may attend law school or rabbinical school, he said.
For him, empowering Hillel will help provide educational opportunities and cultural events for those Stetson students who may never have had the opportunity to experience such things as Passover, the eight-day holiday celebrating the Jewish people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, or Purim, commemorating the time when Jews in Persia were saved from extermination.
“It’s better for Stetson students to have a Hillel. Then we don’t need to travel to Orlando. We can have events here,” he said. “It’s better for us to focus on building a strong Jewish life here at Stetson.”