July 15, 2024
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Rutgers-Newark Campus Gets Its First Hillel Chapter

Years of advocacy by Jewish students at Rutgers-Newark have paid off with the establishment of a Hillel chapter at the university. The university’s office of Student Life and Leadership approved the new student organization on January 20, according to Hillel’s co-president, Miriam Brickman of West Orange.

“The most empowering part about being one of a few Jews—let alone Orthodox Jews—on a campus like Rutgers-Newark is having the ability to represent what Judaism is truly about to people who have made their assumptions about all Jews based on what they see in the media,” she said. “Instead of solely associating Jews with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, non-Jews are now able to see the real beauty of our religion.”

Brickman, who shares the presidency with Adina Pinsker of Hillside, said in an interview with The Jewish Link that her own push for a Hillel began two years ago when she was a freshman and that the struggle had gone on for at least five years. However, with COVID-19 forcing many months of virtual classes, there were few students on campus to motivate. Moreover, compared to the New Brunswick-Piscataway campus, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, Newark has significantly fewer Jewish students.

Further complicating the issue was the Middle East situation, said Brickman, who noted that the university kept dragging its feet in approving a Hillel chapter because of the vocal presence of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), viewed by Jewish groups as an antisemitic organization that supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

“We have always felt the underlying issue was the large SJP,” said Brickman. “They [the university] were afraid they’d get pushback from SJP, even though we are a Jewish organization and not necessarily for Israel.”

However, as time went on the drive by Brickman and other students, coupled with the rise in antisemitism, helped to enlist support from the university’s Intercultural Resource Center, which facilitated connections with faculty members.

“They acknowledged that it was a long time coming, ” said the marketing and economics major. “There had never been Jewish representation on campus, and they felt enough is enough—Jews deserve to have a place to be heard and be together with like-minded people.”

Also providing critical support were Hillel International and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, which is overseeing the group through its Hillel of Greater MetroWest. The federation group provides oversight to Rutgers-Newark and five other campus Hillels at Kean, Montclair, Seton Hall and Fairleigh Dickinson-Madison universities and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Federation Student Engagement Associate Rachel Malaga is overseeing three of those campuses, including Rutgers, with Hillel Executive Director Rebekah Adelson, who is currently on maternity leave.

Malaga said the federation has a “close relationship” with Hillel International and has worked closely with Rutgers-New Brunswick Hillel, which in the face of growing influence of hate groups and the BDS campaign on college campuses formed a partnership with the MetroWest federation five years ago to bring Jewish life and support to college students throughout New Jersey.

The partnership came two years after the main Rutgers campus Hillel formed a similar partnership with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey to form Hillel of Northern New Jersey, serving Bergen Community College, Ramapo College and William Paterson and Fairleigh Dickinson-Teaneck universities.

Malaga said because the federation had no experience in overseeing a Hillel, the partnership with the main campus was invaluable, but the affiliation will end in July when the federation fully assumes management of the MetroWest Hillels.

The Newark Hillel has already held a virtual memorial event on International
Holocaust Remembrance Day and has plans for a Jewish movie night, Purim costume party, an as yet undecided event for Passover and a bagel brunch meet and greet on February 7.

Brickman said she had reached out through chats and got “amazing response,” but in order to be recognized by the university the group had to get 30 signatures. A tabling event to teach students about Judaism turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

“We got a lot of support from non-Jews,” she said. “In the past we have been faced with a lot of anti-Israel comments and antisemitism and we were prepared for that, but we had nothing but support from people of different races and cultures. It was very nice for me being on a campus with few Jews.”

Brickman believes getting to know her and other Jews has given other students a more nuanced view. “There are a lot of minority students who haven’t had any interaction with Jews, let alone an Orthodox Jew like me,” she added. “They have been able to get to know me as a person and see that we have hobbies and interests in common. It gives them a perspective that Judaism and Jews are not what they see online, and have been able to differentiate Judaism from Israel and see that Jews are human like anyone else.”

And Brickman noted that the process of getting a Hillel has broader implications: “I truly believe that the few Jews there are on campus are changing the world’s perspective on Judaism, one person at a time.”

By Debra Rubin

 

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