Hillel Director Sam Friedman: ‘Building the Emerald City’

Sam Friedman wrote this for Heritage Florida Jewish News.

When asked about the quality I most admire in a leader, the answer is always vision. Perhaps it was the years of working with the former CEO of Central Florida Hillel, the irreplaceable Aaron Weil. Or the general lack of vision I see in so many organizations (Jewish and not), but an inspiring leader who knows the potential of their organization makes me want to sign up, donate and get involved. That is why at our recent board retreat, the Stetson University Hillel student board started with vision.

Vision is what has driven Judaism since Abraham. In Hatikvah (literally “the Hope”), the Israeli national anthem, we sing about our vision for a return to the Jewish homeland “…The hope that is two thousand years old, to be a free nation in our land, The Land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

As I shared with my students, it took vision for Stetson President Emerita Wendy Libby to see a thriving Jewish community on campus in DeLand. It was vision that inspired the Ginsburg Family Foundation to support Stetson Hillel by endowing the Jeffrey & Diane Ginsburg Hillel House at Stetson University. And it took vision for the Wolfson Family Foundation to fund the expansion of our Hillel staff to engage more students.

When I do visioning exercises, I like to reference the iconic 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.” I do this because I find that often when people talk about vision they talk about planning. Please don’t get me wrong, planning is crucial, but planning is the yellow brick road, vision is the Emerald City.

a crowd seated out the Stetson Hillel House
The Jeffrey & Diane Ginsburg Hillel House was dedicated at Stetson in November 2019.

When Hillel restarted in earnest at Stetson University, we went from black and white to color – it really was that stark of a change. In a few short years we grew from a ragtag bunch of Jewish students meeting in a dorm with a bottle of Manischewitz, to weekly Glatt Kosher Shabbat meals with a growing attendance. Hillel has so greatly impacted the campus culture that there is now Kosher grab-and-go food on campus. Students can earn a Jewish studies minor. Hatters can study at Hebrew University through a full exchange program. And Hillel is consistently recognized as one of the best student organizations on campus.

Still, all of that growth just brought us to Oz. So I asked, what does the Emerald City look like, and the leaders of Stetson Hillel, the future leaders of our and many other Jewish communities, responded with a depth of understanding, creativity and passion that should make us all sleep better at night.

The Hillel Student Board shared with me a future Hillel with many points of entry for Jewish Hatters to engage – from the most observant to the “Just Jewish.” They shared with me the need to continue developing leaders and that Hillel should continue serving as a springboard for broader campus leadership positions (for two years in a row the Stetson SGA President and head of student media have been Hillel Board members). They talked about the house continuing to be used for meetings, debates, snacks, parties, holidays and study. They shared a Jewish community that embraces the purist form of pluralism and recognizes that we are better when we do not have to check our identity at the door – be it political ideology, religious observance, sexuality, or even your mood after a rough class. They talked about the need for good leaders to work themselves out of a job by inspiring those who do not yet recognize their own gifts and potential. And they talked about how a well-funded, connected and fully engaged Jewish community leads to a better Stetson for everyone.

I am inspired by these leaders, and I can’t wait to watch them build that Emerald City – brick by yellow brick.