WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- David Messer, Marcie Hutt and Nathan Roller may be the first students to reap the benefits of a new affiliation between Whitman College and Hillel, The Jewish Foundation for Campus Life, but they are unlikely to be the last.
Over time, the new affiliation should help create a more vibrant Jewish community at Whitman, one that can make greater contributions to the campus melting pot of culture, race and religion.
As the advisor to Shalom, a Jewish student group on campus, Sharon Kaufman-Osborn has spent the fall semester formalizing Whitman's affiliation to Hillel, an organization based in Washington, D.C., and devoted to facilitating a renaissance of Jewish life at colleges in the United States and around the world.
Colleges and universities with affiliations to Hillel are eligible for grant funding for on-campus programming. Of more importance to Whitman, perhaps, is the opportunity to join a Hillel network with links to hundreds of other campuses. "Being part of the Hillel network provides tangible benefits to Jewish students already on campus," Kaufman-Osborn said. "The affiliation is also important to prospective Jewish students and their families as they make decisions about which colleges they might want to attend."
Through its Soref Initiative for Emerging Campuses, Hillel provides guidance, financial assistance, online resources and a communication network for colleges and universities with small Jewish populations. Whitman currently has about 75 Jewish students on campus, Kaufman-Osborn estimates.
Marcie Hutt and Nathan Roller, two sophomores now serving as co-presidents of Shalom, received Hillel funding last summer to attend its Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly. Held in August at Camp Moshava in the Pocono Mountains near Honesdale, Penn., the assembly engaged about 350 Jewish students from around the world in six days of workshops focused on leadership development, programming, and Jewish learning.
Meanwhile in August, Hillel sponsorship allowed Whitman junior David Messer to join more than 50 young Jewish people (ages 18 to 26) at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute for a 26-day educational retreat in the Simi Hills of southern California. Established in 1941, the retreat program attracts staff and participants from around the globe and features exploration of Judaism through Biblical studies as well as the arts.
After sampling a variety of workshops in the arts, Messer chose the one specializing in Israeli dance. Taught by David Dassa, son of one of Israel's premier dance choreographers (Donny Dassa), the workshop covered the development and politics of Israeli dance. The elder Dassa made a guest appearance as workshop participants learned more than three dozen dances.
To share his new-found expertise in Israeli dance, Messer will give a Shalom-sponsored workshop for the Whitman community. Open to all at no cost, the workshop is set for 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27, in the Student Union Building ballroom.
Hillel funded the entire cost of Messer's trip to California, and about one-half the cost of sending Hutt and Roller to the leadership conference in Pennsylvania. Whitman covered the remainder of those costs.
Messer, a psychology major at Whitman and graduate of South Eugene (Ore.) High School, said the Brandeis-Bardin Institute featured a setting in which tolerance of others was one of the guiding principles.
"A wide range of people attended, from orthodox Jews to reconstructionist Jews and even some non-Jews," Messer said. "The aim of the retreat was not to espouse a certain set of values or to convince us that their way was the right way to believe or observe. It was to provide an environment for us to explore what Judaism means to us, and what role we want it to play in our lives."
According to Roller, a religion major and graduate of Redwood High School in Larkspur, Calif., workshop and lecture topics at the Leaders Assembly ranged from activity ideas for Jewish holidays to general leadership and organizational skills. Leaders from colleges with small Jewish populations, after sharing their ideas and concerns, came away with a new perspective on planning campus activities, Roller said. One workshop encouraged leaders to judge the success of activities by factors other than a relatively small number of participants.
Hutt, a graduate of Santa Monica (Calif.) High School, also appreciated the opportunity to "connect" with students from other small schools, since "we face many of the same problems."
Participants at the assembly ate kosher meals and observed traditional Shabbat ceremonies, Roller noted, but "at the same time the religious diversity was incredible. There were three prayer services every day for the orthodox, conservative, reform and reconstructionist movements. I was able to attend all the different services at some point in the conference. I learned a lot from just talking to other people."
"The conference was a great opportunity for orthodox, conservative and reform Jews to come together and discuss ways to improve Jewish life on campus," Hutt said. "This was my first chance to interact with orthodox college-age students, and to learn more about their customs and beliefs."
Both Hutt and Roller say they developed a stronger sense of their Jewish identity by taking part in the conference.
"This was the most spiritually meaningful thing I have ever done," Roller said. "I have always had a strong Jewish identity on a personal level, but I had never had the opportunity to be around so many other Jews for such a long period. The Leaders Assembly gave me a sense of being part of a larger Jewish community."
Hutt said the conference was "especially important to me because it allowed me to reconnect with my Jewish identity. Being at the conference with so many Jewish college students was extremely comforting and valuable because of the unspoken connections. I did not have to explain or justify myself or my beliefs."
As co-presidents of Shalom, Hutt and Roller are continuing to plan a variety of campus events, including a weekly "Fridays at Five" Shabbat celebration in the campus center cafeteria.
Other Whitman students serving as Shalom officers this year are Zoey Mann, treasurer, a junior theatre major and graduate of Vashon Island (Wash.) High School, and Amy Cole, student government representative, a freshman and graduate of Lamar High School in Rosenberg, Texas.