Hillel: Growing a Jewish connection

December 15, 2022

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As the executive director at William & Mary Hillel in Williamsburg, Rabbi Gershon Litt’s responsibilities include development, bookkeeping, education, interaction with the university, counseling, and student and faculty meetings. Add all of that to his having headed up nearly 40 Birthright Israel trips, and it’s a wonder he has any time left over in his day.

“My passion is to work with students in education,” Rabbi Litt affirms. “Jewish education is how all of this started and that is what I enjoy the most—teaching.”

The biggest change from the founding of William & Mary Hillel during the 1960s to now, according to Litt, is a story of growth. “When I started, there was very little at William & Mary. I would gather the Jewish students that we knew about in academic buildings, invite some for Shabbos dinners, and try to get students to come with me on Israel trips, but there were so few Jewish students on campus that building a community was not really possible. It is an entirely different story today. William & Mary has been an incredible partner in helping me locate appropriate land, in the construction of our building, and by offering constant support in everything we want to do at Hillel and beyond.”

Campus enrollment today stands at around 600 Jewish students. “Our growth began before COVID, then COVID brought about a diversification of programming and engagement. Now we are once again seeing growth as we have moved back to in-person programming,” says Litt.

Last spring, William & Mary had a Purim carnival with hundreds of students, and they took over the Sunken Gardens on campus with hundreds of students for Hanukkah in conjunction with the local Chabad. Just last month, they held a “Friendsgiving” program for students to gather and find meaning in community together before they left for Thanksgiving break.

“We have partnered with the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and the Jewish Community Relations Council to recently offer Joe Perlov [an Israeli map expert] and other programmatic resources, which are helping to build our strong Israel education program,” Litt adds.

Perhaps his favorite thing to do at William & Mary is lead the Birthright Israel trips, of which he says, “I have led almost 40 trips. When students get engaged in their Judaism, I remember why I do this job. The stronger a student’s Jewish identity, the more likely it is that he or she will remain part of the Jewish community when they graduate and live a fuller, Jewish life.”

Litt says his hope for all Birthright Israel participants is that they come back home with a stronger sense of the people of Israel, the land of Israel, and the Torah of Israel. “Then, I hope that they can internalize that and begin to ask questions that will inspire them to want to be an active participant in the building and maintenance of all three.”

Hillel is 100% student led; the student board plans and executes all events and programs. Rabbi Litt is available as a resource and a provider of resources. “I set up the framework and it is up to them to create the programmatic infrastructure,” he says. “Some of the decisions are made for them, i.e. kosher food, not conflicting with Jewish practices, etc., but for the most part, if they want a cultural event, Israel event, religious experience, or something else, I help them make those ideas a reality.” Leadership, he says, is key to creating a community, and the student-driven programs help build their skills, self-confidence, and ability to plan.

The organization is open to all Jewish students, regardless of personal observance. All the food at their events is kosher (catered by Meredith Mills under the VAAD Hakashrus of Tidewater). Students can choose if they want to come to services and dinner or just dinner. “We had a Rosh Hashanah meal with close to 100 students who signed up,” he says. “Some of them attended services and some did not. Students ultimately choose for themselves what they find inspiring and what they want their Jewish experiences to be.”

Social events range from game nights to Israel parties and much more. “We recently started Big Brother/Big Sister events where juniors and seniors ‘adopt’ younger students and have events with them,” he says. “Thanks to the Tidewater Jewish Foundation, as well as Nadiv, our students have also benefited from networking with local Jewish-owned businesses.”

Coming together toward a greater good is something Rabbi Litt lives every day, believing that success doesn’t happen in isolation. He says, “Rabbi Heber of Chabad of Williamsburg and I have partnered with many projects over the past two years. We work very well together and I believe that Williamsburg, Va. could be a model that other campuses could use to see how to leverage strengths of complimentary Jewish organizations to further the goal of Jewish education and Jewish identity. The Jewish people have something very special. Rabbi Heber and I each have something special to bring to the table, so we should work together to achieve our goals as much as possible.”

Every community exposes participants to a spectrum of ideas. “Our goal is for them to ask more questions and take responsibility for their Jewish identity,” Litt says. “Whatever they attach themselves to, whether it is challah baking, Holocaust studies, Israel, or Shabbos—my goal is to make those things relevant to them today so they can make intelligent decisions about their Jewish identities tomorrow.”

For more information, visit wm.edu and under “Departments and Offices,” search for “Hillel.”

William & Mary Hillel is a recipient of funds from United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Annual Campaign.

-Debbie Burke


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