Jewish students attending any Pittsburgh university have a spiritual and social home at Hillel JUC (Jewish University Center), situated on Forbes Avenue in Oakland between the Pitt and CMU campuses. An affiliate of Hillel International, it has a presence on over 550 college campuses across the globe. We spoke with Daniel Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director, about the ways in which the local organization is engaging Jewish undergrads in meaningful, Jewish campus life.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): When was Hillel JUC first established in Pittsburgh?
Daniel Marcus (Marcus): Hillel, in one form or another, has been in Pittsburgh for more than 50 years. In 2001, the incredible Hillel JUC building was opened on Forbes. With enormous appreciation to the local Jewish community that funded and built the building, it created an opportunity for how we can engage and support Jewish students. Having that physical space really is a marker of how important and how much value Jewish students have to the Pittsburgh and the wider Jewish community.
NHM: How many students do you serve annually?
Marcus: In order to ensure that we’re engaging with every Jewish student on our campuses, we track how many students participate in Hillel activities throughout the school year. In the last school year, we had around 1,400 Jewish students engage with us at least one time.
NHM: What does the Hillel JUC offer Jewish students?
Marcus: One of the things that we’re most proud of and committed to at the Hillel JUC is that we build authentic relationships with Jewish students. We don’t say, ‘This is what you should do, this is who you must be,’ but we really embrace the identities of our students so we can provide them with their Jewish journey. It could be anything from how they think about celebrating Jewish lifecycle events or how they want to be involved in Jewish arts and culture or if they simply want a place where they can socialize and meet other Jewish friends. We are a pluralistic organization: whatever the identity of the student, we ensure that they feel welcome, embraced and supported while they’re at a Pittsburgh college.
NHM: What is the Hillel JUC building like?
Marcus: It is a three-story, 12,000 sq. ft. building that houses a library, an Israel café, activity room, meeting room, and the third floor is a large, open space where around 150-plus students can sit and gather and celebrate Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) and holidays together.
NHM: In a non-COVID year, can you give me an example of the kinds of programming you hold for students?
Marcus: The way that we think about this at Hillel JUC is in terms of communities, not in terms of programs. By that I mean that we’re peer-led; our ethos is that students are the producers of the experience, because they know best what the culture is, the ebb and flow and the needs. We are blessed to have a phenomenal staff team whose role is to work directly with students as guides, supporters, and mentors. The way that we operate is we create communities around the ideas and aspirations of our students with guidance and professional support from the staff.
We have a group called 70 Faces and an arts and culture group, a Panthers for Israel group, a CMU sisterhood group, and all these groups are different communities the students have developed with our team. We have a group called Challah for Hunger, a community that comes together to bake challah and they raise money each week for hunger charities and education around hunger, and a coalition that provides an opportunity for students to engage in activities around social justice and volunteerism.
Of course, we have our Shabbat and holidays communities—the students create themes for different Friday night dinners and different holidays. We’re also dedicated to providing resources, support and leadership training and development. That is probably one of the things that is at the heart of our Hillel—we want to make sure students have opportunities to flourish as campus leaders today and for the Jewish community in the future.
NHM: How have you shifted your operations to adhere to COVID safety protocols?
Marcus: The majority of our activities and communities now meet on Zoom and online. We also have a weekly program called Shabbat-to-Go. It’s an outdoor safe distribution of everything a student will need to celebrate Shabbat, including a full Shabbat meal that is boxed or bagged and distributed from six feet away. We have 180-200 students every week for this distribution. That is, of course, a challenging operation to do, but we’re committed that our students continue to have their Shabbat experiences. We’ve had tremendously positive feedback from students about how important that is to continue each week.
NHM: How else have you been able to stay connected with the students during COVID?
Marcus: It’s definitely been much more challenging, but what we’ve done is make sure staff and student leaders are in constant contact with students, whether that is via Zoom, a phone call, an email, whatever works for that student. We’ve done a good job, but nothing beats being together in person.
NHM: What does the future look like for Hillel JUC?
Marcus: We’re always planning for and looking to tomorrow. We are already starting to think about the lessons that we have learned during COVID that we’ll take into the future, the ways we can support, help and engage our students while also thinking about how it will look like to get back to in-person communities and activities and how we can celebrate those. I can tell you that when we can gather in person, we are definitely going to have a huge Jewish student life celebration with music, food, cultural activities, with the caveat of when and how that is permissible safely and sensibly.
NHM: Do you think having a Hillel presence in Pittsburgh was a factor in some Jewish students’ college decisions?
Marcus: That is interesting, because a parent and student I was speaking with just recently said that when they came to visit Pitt, their visit to the Hillel JUC solidified that decision. A comment I’ve heard dozens and dozens of times is that we were so friendly and warm and caring, that it was definitely a factor in decision-making. It’s a Pittsburgh thing—we’re proud of the culture of Pittsburgh, of trying to always be friendly and warm and caring.
NHM: How can a Jewish student’s time at college be enhanced by affiliating with Hillel?
Marcus: Being part of Hillel can provide social, cultural, spiritual and heritage enhancement to every part of their life. We hear from students that Hillel was so important in their lives, and part of our mission and vision is that what we provide them during the college years creates an enduring commitment to their Jewish identity.