Hillel Blog

Hillel: The Beauty of Community

Posted by: Mor Keshet on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 12:30:00 pm  |  Comments (0)


When I was twenty years-old, I was completing my undergraduate studies in Prague.  As I walked the magical streets, cloaked in the beauty of the city, I felt an undeniable absence.  Every town, every village, whether in The Czech Republic, Poland, or Hungary, echoed this absence, a screaming vacancy that intensified with the silence.  The shadow of my grandparents’ history loomed over my spirit as I entered churches and community centers that once stood as synagogues. 


Coming from a secular Israeli home, my connection to Judaism was based on history, language and culture.  But in this foreign place, I found myself longing for something different.  As Rosh Hashanah approached, I was overcome by grief and longing.  For the first time, I needed a Jewish community, I wanted a Jewish community, and I did not have one.  I went to services in the Jewish Quarter.  Above the callings of the Shofar, I saw the drawings left by children who perished in the camps, I saw the writings of those who faced the ugliest of what humanity has to offer, and in spite of their anguish, their voices bellowed their love for G-d, for Israel, for their people. 


From my grief emerged a solace.  In that very moment as I sat in the Old Synagogue, I was comforted by the fact that Jews around the globe were doing the same.  While I was alone, I was never more connected.  Connected to the other congregants, connected to my family, my family’s history, connected to all Jews and G-d.  However ephemeral, I found my community.   


Over these last weeks, I have had the honor of speaking with many of you.  I have learned about your history, your families, and your need for community.  I have asked many of you why you have been coming to services at Stony Brook Hillel for so many years.  Your reflections have helped shape my understanding, my gratitude for Hillel.  You have said: “home, family, togetherness, welcoming, embracing, accepting, loving.”  This is no surprise, as you all have defined this community.  You have infused it with love and support; from you a community of friendship and kindness has emerged and now thrives. 


This community nourishes the Jewish students of Stony Brook.  Students like Aaron.  Aaron grew up in a Conservadox home.  He had strong connections to his faith, to Judaism, but when he was a teenager, he withdrew from Jewish life.  He did not enter a shul of any kind for twelve years.  The trajectory of Aaron’s life changed dramatically.  The summer before Aaron began his studies at Stony Brook University, his grandfather passed away.  His grandfather exemplified Judaism to Aaron, and he was with him when he passed.  While at his grandfather’s funeral, Aaron felt his spirituality erupt to the surface, but it had no place to go.  One month later, he came to campus.  One of Aaron’s first stops was Hillel.  The first face he saw, as is common for many students, was Joy’s.  For those of you who don’t know Joy, she is Hillel’s program director, and in Aaron’s words, she is the heartbeat of Hillel.  She is the driving force that empowers students, that welcomes them, that wants to know them as they are, that gives them endless opportunities to lead and grow.  Aaron attended the first Shabbat dinner of the academic year and he was spiritually awakened.  He says, “This is the Jewish community that I did not have for twelve years; this is where I could connect with different Rabbis, to learn and ask questions, and I could do it all safely.  No one would judge me, no one would tell me that I was not good or observant enough; I knew that I just belonged.”  Aaron began to integrate the lessons of his past with the lessons of the present.  He began to cultivate friendships with his peers and with staff, he describes this experience as being one filled with acceptance: “No one tried to figure me out; they just embraced me.  It was amazing; like a massive group hug.”  After witnessing the profound efforts of his peers, Aaron decided to become a part of Hillel’s student leadership which strives to enliven and enrich Jewish life on campus.  Aaron is older than the average undergraduate student.  Upon beginning his journey here, he thought he would remain anonymous, disconnected.  Today, he is someone whom his peers seek out for advice, for empathy, for love.  Aaron says that Hillel provided him with the experiences, the relationships, the space he needed so that he could rise from his shell, developing into an individual who now returns the warmth and acceptance he received.  He is now far more mindful of others, of their feelings, of their path and their faults.  He is also more forgiving of others, and of himself.  As a leader, Aaron has come to learn that it is not about telling others what to do, it’s about helping them, it’s about knowing them: their strength, their limitations, what engages them, what excites them.  And, it is about knowing himself.  I wish more of our leaders would take on a similar approach!  Aaron is graduating in May.  He says that he will be leaving Stony Brook a changed man.  He says he is more confident, more complete; that he will easily translate his social and leadership experiences to his personal and professional future.  Once again, the trajectory of Aaron’s life has changed: Aaron says, “I could not have gotten to where I am alone.  I would not be where I am without Hillel.” 


While Aaron’s story is all his own, it possesses themes which are a common thread throughout the Hillel story.  In a recent study conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation on young Jewish leaders in their  20’s and 30’s, it was found that 80% of young Jewish leaders had a Hillel experience.  80%.  This is no coincidence.  Hillel provides the community in which students are given the tools and the opportunities to safely become leaders.  To cultivate meaningful relationships with peers, with faculty, with staff, and with Hillel’s partners- the leaders of our community.  To learn about what it requires to lead, with empathy, integrity and strength.  They, students, define what our programs offer, they make their needs known, and when faced with challenges, they receive the supports they need to not only overcome them, but to emerge fortified.  We all have a stake in this process.  We are essentially helping young adults face a world that is unlike the one of our parents and grandparents.  To stand tall amidst uncertainty, to stand united despite divisiveness.  Today, we are all more mindful.  Mindful of ourselves, our choices, our mistakes, mindful of what we hope to change and how we can be a part of that change.  There is a foreboding curtain of concern enveloping our world, our country, in Israel, and our people.  As we remain steadfast in our charge to empower Jewish students, we become guarantors that pledge to foster the next generation of leadership.  As Aaron’s story beautifully illustrates, we all endure times in which we must receive the support of others, and then life provides us with the gift to bestow kindness and give tzedakah.  In Israel, there is a beautiful tradition of planting a tree when a child is born.  Today, there is a forest bountiful with trees, with life.  Your support does just this, it plants seeds that will flourish into forests, into communities, here and beyond.  Today, on behalf of all of the students we serve, I thank you for all that you have done, and all that you do to help harvest a community that is magnanimous, diverse and ever-lasting.  Thank you. 



Posted by: Rabbi Jospeh Topek on Monday, August 27, 2012 at 4:00:00 pm  |  Comments (0)

            Today is the first day of classes and I would like to welcome all new students to Stony Brook and welcome back all of our returning students.  It is no accident that in Judaism we begin the reading of the Torah each year.  That means that at least once a year we start over again literally from the beginning, and we re-read the same material we read last year.  One would think that this would become redundant.  After all, even though you are beginning a new academic year you are not repeating the same courses you took last semester (hopefully!) and are going on to new material.  If this is your first time in college then it will all be new to you.  Why, then, repeat the reading of the Torah every year?

           One thing you will discover in higher education is that the depth of knowledge in any one field can seem limitless.  You will learn from professors who have spent a lifetime studying and teaching a single subject.  They often have spent years in graduate school learning the fundamentals and researching a dissertation, only to spend their careers in further research, publishing their findings and contributing to the body of knowledge in their field.  Each of them contributes another layer of knowledge that hopefully makes us better informed and better able to navigate the world we live in.

            So too with the study of the Torah.  Each year that we re-immerse ourselves in it we learn more and we try to come closer to understanding its important moral and ethical teachings.  Whether we view it as a spiritual endeavor meant to bring us closer to G-d, or an intellectual exercise meant to stimulate our minds and challenge us to expand our thinking, this single document has shaped modern civilization like no other.  Just as any field of study, it can take a lifetime of reading, re-reading, commentaries, discussions, and deep thinking to try to gain understanding and derive meaning.  This is why Judaism not only reveres learning, but in fact makes it a commandment.  So as we begin a new academic year and engage in the process of expanding our knowledge of the universe, we can be informed by our own tradition and apply its teachings broadly.  In a few short weeks we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, which in our tradition is also the birthday of the world.  This new beginning – of the academic year and the Jewish year – is an opportunity for us to renew our dedication to learning and to making a positive contribution to human understanding and the betterment of the world.  Happy New Year!



Posted by: Joseph Topek on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 5:00:00 pm  |  Comments (0)

This week is the last week of classes for this academic year.  As the year draws to a close it begins to sink in that some of our students will be graduating soon and will leave Stony Brook for good.  This past weekend the University hosted an alumni reunion called Generation One, which were those who graduated in the classes 1961 – 1981.  I did not know these alumni when they were students, as I arrived at Stony Brook in 1982, but I felt as if I did.  Many of them are my own age, having attended college when I did, and experienced similar things as young adults.  Of course many of them had fond memories of Stony Brook in the 1960’s and 70’s, and recalled some of the more infamous aspects of the University during its initial growth period.  Chief among these, of course, was the mud, a result of the construction sites that were ubiquitous in those days (and now too, for that matter).  But they also remembered the many concerts held in the gym and on the athletic fields with some of rock’s greatest bands; The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, Carly Simon, The Blue Oyster Cult, and many more.

Perhaps one thing they had in common with our current students is that they remembered the friends they made at Stony Brook and were happy to be reunited with some of them over the weekend.  In many ways that is what our work here is about: building a community.  It’s a community that only exists for a short period of time and it’s one whose members fall within a specific age cohort.  Still, the campus community – and the campus Jewish community by extension – is one that provides for unprecedented experimentation and growth.

For those of you who will leave us this year, remember and cherish the friends you made and the experiences you had, for you will not be privileged to repeat them.  Come to a reunion when you are invited and use the new technology with which we have been blessed to keep in contact.  Finally, when we ask you to support Hillel, and we will, please remember that someone provided the resources for all of the free Shabbat dinners and falafel that you ate, the lovely Hillel facility where you studied and hung out, the free trips to Israel you took, and the devoted staff who listened to you kvetch, shared your successes, and wrote you letters of recommendation.  Just as we were here for you we will be here for future generations of students ready to help them build their own campus community and learn and grow as Jews.  Mazal tov and l’hatzlacha (much success) to our graduates!

February 23rd 2012

Posted by: Rabbi Joseph Topek on Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 12:00:00 pm  |  Comments (0)

I am writing this message to you with some anxiety because I have spent the past 30 years at Stony Brook working in a university that has always displayed the utmost respect for the great diversity of its community, including religious diversity.  One of the hallmarks of this was the practice of not holding classes on major religious holidays celebrated by many Jews and Christians.  In fact for at least 20 years I represented our Interfaith Center on the University’s Calendar Committee where I worked with faculty, staff, and students to craft calendars that respected religious observance, met state mandates for classroom contact hours, and permitted the institution to maximize class offerings with two full academic semesters, two summer sessions, and a winter intersession.  The calendars were not without some compromises, including “switch days” and sometimes a late spring recess, but they were exercises in accommodation.  The Committee had calendars in place through year 2014-2015 and would have considered other religious holidays in the next round of planning, particularly those of Muslim students, who represent a significant community here.

As many of you know, Stony Brook has announced that beginning in 2012-2013 the University will hold classes on days previously recognized as religious holidays.  The Interfaith Center chaplains have met with the President, Provost, and other chief administrators to express our opposition to this decision and stand united as Christians, Muslims, and Jews in our belief that this decision is not a good one for our University.

We are very concerned that this policy will result in large numbers of faculty and staff being unable to teach classes on major holidays and large numbers of students will miss important course work.  New York State Education Law (Section 224-a) requires the institution to provide all students with an equivalent make up opportunity for any required work missed due to religious observance.  We all know, however, that the student-teacher relationship is not an equal one, and many students are intimidated or frightened by the prospect of revealing personal information to a teacher in order to ask for make up work.  Even under previous calendars there were many less widely observed holidays (Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, end of Passover for example) that sometimes resulted in students having difficulty obtaining make up work.  This could multiply exponentially when Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Good Friday, and Easter are included.

The other three SUNY University Centers are maintaining calendars that recognize the holidays as are several of the SUNY colleges, most local public school districts, and New York City public schools.  Dropping major religious holidays from the academic calendar seems out of step with the practice in New York State, New York City, and Long Island, the public constituency to which Stony Brook is most accountable.  I also believe that the new calendar is not in keeping with SUNY calendar guidelines issued to individual campuses.

I am blogging about this to inform you of the University’s decision so that you can plan holiday observances accordingly.  Should this decision remain final, we at Stony Brook Hillel will do everything in our power to make sure that members of our community are offered appropriate religious services on these days when they may be unable to be with their own families.  It is difficult to anticipate what the student response will be, but if significantly larger numbers are on campus for Passover and the high holidays, instead of with their families, Hillel will do its very best to provide for them.



Posted by: Rabbi Joseph Topek on Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 12:00:00 pm  |  Comments (1)

             Hillel as a movement takes pride in being Jewishly pluralistic.  Since our founding in 1923 Hillel has never aligned itself with any particular religious movement in Judaism and from the beginning rabbis of all denominations have served as Hillel directors or in other professional positions.  In the academic setting in which Hillel lives this has not been all that difficult, as tolerance and even respect for differing views is part and parcel of this way of life.  Yet, on the Jewish communal side of things there can be issues.

                 Sometimes we find that pluralism has its limits.  Hillels are occasionally asked to define what “is” Jewish and what “isn’t” Jewish.  Challenges on some campuses have come from “messianic Jews,” from Jewish groups that seek to hold events that might violate certain religious norms, and from groups of Jewish students who criticize Israel or the policies of the Israeli government.  In the latter case it may not be what’s Jewish or not, but what belongs within the scope of a Jewish community that affirms the right of a Jewish state to exist in safety and security.  On our campus we have not faced such issues, but we do sometimes deal with questions of religious inclusion or exclusion.

            In an ideal world Hillel would like to accommodate every student and know that they are comfortable attending a program.  We know, however, that this is not realistic.  While Hillel as an organization does not take formal positions on political or ideological issues, speakers we may sponsor surely do and there is no guarantee that someone will not find objection when these views are expressed.  In a university, however, finding a level of discomfort with what you read or hear is not a bad thing, but an integral part of the learning process.  If students only hear views that reinforce their own thinking then they are not learning.  There is little that I think we would consider intellectually “off limits” in a Hillel setting.

            Religious observance raises an entirely different set of questions.  It is impossible to have a single worship service in which all Jews feel at ease or find meaningful.  There is almost no level of kashrut supervision that satisfies everyone in the Jewish community.  Certainly there is a wide range of opinions regarding Israel and how it should solve its problems with its neighbors.

             In a more parochial setting, where perhaps there is a single stated ideology, it would be simple to declare where we stand.  Universities, however, require a much more subtle and nuanced approach in order to sustain any sense of community cohesiveness.  That, essentially, is what being Jewishly pluralistic means for us.  Hillel serves as a platform on which students can build a Jewish community that reflects their own visions and values.  That means that we must stand ready to support and facilitate all legitimate forms of Jewish expression on campus and ask students to respect the choices made by their peers even if they are not choices they would have made.  We often hold multiple Shabbat services in separate rooms but then all students come together for a single Shabbat dinner where they may share a common experience that transcends issues of egalitarianism and inclusion.  Engagement programs may serve food at student-driven events that does not necessarily “conform” to the level of kashrut that one finds in Delancey Street (our campus kosher dining venue), but as long as those who attend are fully aware of this then they may choose whether or not to partake.  Surely it has been the case that speakers, films, art, and other expressions have prompted strong disagreement from students but they have also provoked deep discussions that result in intellectual and spiritual growth.

            Many years ago I received a call from a rabbinic colleague because the son of a congregant was attending Stony Brook.  In the course of our discussion the rabbi said that when he arrived at college this young man was a certain “type” of Jew (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.), and he expected that at the end of four years the student would emerge the same “type” of Jew and it was my responsibility to make sure of that.  My response was that I viewed my responsibility as providing this student with the resources to live a Jewish life as he saw fit and to challenge him to grow Jewishly from an adolescent into an adult.  If that resulted in an ideological shift it was not my concern as long as there was growth and maturation.  I don’t remember how the conversation ended (although I doubt there was a check forthcoming from the rabbi’s discretionary fund), but I can say that over the course of many years as a Hillel rabbi I have indeed seen students’ lives transformed as they have grown into Jewish adults learning to think and stand on their own and take responsibility for the lives they lead.  For any parent, or rabbi, that should be gratifying.

Der Shmooze – The Conversation

Posted by: Rabbi Topek on Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 11:39:00 am  |  Comments (0)

Der Shmooze – The Conversation


Welcome to Stony Brook Hillel’s blog, Der Shmooze, which means The Conversation (in Yiddish!).  I must admit that I was reluctant to start this blog, but several wise members of our community thought it would be a good way to get more people involved in a Jewish conversation.  How could I refuse?  So it is my hope that this will not be a monologue but an opportunity for people to offer their own comments, opinions, and insights.  The Mishna (Jewish Oral Law) says, “Who is wise?  One who learns from all persons.”  [Pirke Avot 4:1]  Here in an academic setting there is a place for everyone's voice and I hope you will add yours.  The only rule is civility.  It is fine to disagree with views that are posted here as long as it is done with respect and courtesy.  We can disagree without being disagreeable.

Undoubtedly many of you are familiar with the concept of lashon hara in Judaism.  This literally means evil speech, but refers to gossip or slander about another person.  Jewish law condemns this practice in the harshest terms, even comparing it to murder (at least of the person’s reputation).  Certainly it is something that we have all been guilty of and probably on a daily basis engage in some sort of idle chit-chat about other people.  Often we do this unwittingly, without malice or the intent to harm.  Being an election year it is hard to ignore the daily lashon hara about candidates for public office that we see in the media.  Like most people, I find it easier to tolerate when it’s about a candidate I don’t like and become offended when it’s about a candidate I favor.  Some of it is presented as mere factual information about a candidate and his or her past, such as how many wives they have had, if they engaged in extra-marital affairs, if they parented any children out of wedlock, etc.  Many of us wonder whether or not this really has an impact on a candidate’s fitness for office.  After all, we have learned well after the fact, many of our greatest leaders led personal lives that would not pass muster if examined by today’s investigative journalists.  In some ways public figures have always been subject to scrutiny and even Moses was no exception.  Aspects of his personal life made him the subject of criticism when there was disagreement with his leadership style.

So what role does someone’s personal life play in their quest for public office?  Are the details of their private lives important considerations in choosing a candidate?  Can these issues be publicly discussed without engaging in lashon hara or otherwise prying into someone’s personal life?  Do Jewish values inform us in our activities as citizens in the public sphere participating in the democratic process of the country we live in?  I invite you to add your own views and comments to this discussion and to join in Der Shmooze!