Hillel receives grant to promote Judaism

By Audrey Henkels

The Newberger Hillel Center at the University of Chicago recently won a prestigious $150,000 Signature Grant from the Covenant Foundation to be used over a three-year period.

The Hillel plans to use the money for their five-stage “Jethro-Initiative,” in which they hope to encourage people to embrace Judaism as an ethnic heritage, not just as a religious faith.

“The Hillel at the U of C is becoming national leader in rethinking what Hillel is here to do and how to do it,” said Newberger Hillel Center Executive Director Daniel Libenson.

“Most Jews get their Jewish education in a religious context—whether through a synagogue or Hebrew school-—and they’re presented with Judaism as something religious. Judaism is not only a religion, it is an ethnic cultural heritage, but the Jewish community is not set up to educate people that way,” he added.

Libenson said that the Hillel hopes to use the grant money to present Judaism to college students in a new way, so that as they explore possibilities for their future, they will seriously consider incorporating Judaism into their adult lives.

In the first stage of the Initiative, which will be implemented next September, the Hillel plans to bring several Jewish scholars, artists, and other thinkers to campus, Libenson said.

These educators will make personal connections and build relationships with students, eventually developing small communities of 10 to 15 students.

The grant will pay for three mentors to come to campus for approximately 10 hours a week throughout the school year, and Libenson said that the Hillel hopes to obtain additional funding to expand the program and reach out to additional students.

Recipients of the Covenant Foundation Signature Grants are selected based on the innovativeness and quality of their organization’s proposal and its potential to be replicated on a larger scale. Libenson said that because the Hillel utilizes only part-time staff, its mentorship program promises to be cost-effective and better suited to national application.

Prior to 2007, only two Hillel chapters had ever been awarded the grant—the branches at University of Michigan and Ohio State University, both large state schools with significant Jewish populations. In 2007, however, the foundations awarded its first two grants to Hillel chapters at smaller, private institutions—the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

For the Newberger Hillel Center, Libenson said that a next step is to begin recruiting mentors for the 2008–2009 school year.

“I’m really excited and honored that we got this grant,” he added. “I am excited to bring a new approach to Judaism to the University of Chicago and am really looking forward to seeing what happens next year.”