When she arrived on the Brandeis University campus in fall 2020, Chicago native Samantha Brody wasn’t sure what to expect from her freshman year.
“It was a peak COVID isolation moment,” she said. Brody, now a rising senior, said her experience with Hillel, the Jewish college organization now celebrating its centennial year, made all the difference.
“My first interaction with Hillel was that they dropped off some challah and grape juice and some desserts from a bakery nearby before my first Shabbat on campus. And I think that really set the tone for how I got involved in Hillel. I just knew that it was a community I wanted to be a part of where people were supporting each other and that the staff really cared about making sure that we were OK, especially when it was really hard.”
Currently, Brody is the incoming co-chair of Hillel International’s Student Cabinet as well as the student representative on Hillel’s Centennial Committee. In December 2022, the committee launched the Promise of a New Generation, a fundraising campaign that aims to raise $150 million by the end of 2024. To date, the campaign has raised more than $100 million. The funds will be directed to the creation and piloting of new programmatic initiatives to support the construction of new Hillel buildings and to renovate existing buildings.
The campaign has drawn some impressive donors, including Seagram heir and frequent backer of Jewish causes Matthew Bronfman, and actress Mayim Bialik. It arrives at a time of heightened awareness of the need to support Jewish culture and solidarity, as antisemitism surges in the United States. In the past year, we’ve seen such philanthropic attention channeled toward Jewish Community Centers, Jewish LGBTQ causes, and even a $25 million media campaign to combat antisemitism. (To read more about the diverse landscape of giving for Jewish causes, be sure to check out our State of American Philanthropy report on the topic and our Grantfinder guide.)
Founded by Rabbi Benjamin Frankel at the University of Illinois in 1923, Hillel is the largest Jewish student organization in the world. Its presence can be felt on more than 850 college and university campuses in 16 countries, welcoming students of all Jewish backgrounds as well as non-Jewish students for free Shabbat meals, holiday observances, Israel and Jewish education, social opportunities and more. Hillel also aims to keep young adults active and committed to Jewish life after college and throughout their lives.
Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International, said that the organization has seen success on both counts.
“We know that if we are able to engage students six or more times in an academic year, it moves their beliefs, it shifts their hearts and minds in terms of, number one, being able to really tap into the power of Jewish wisdom, practice and community, which is a treasure of thousands of years. Number two, it does tend to solidify for them a commitment to be upstanding members of Jewish communities who contribute and give back, but also contributing members of the broader community and world.”
Additionally, said Lehman, Hillel is “a leadership development pipeline. We really do focus within the broad outreach and engagement work that we do on identifying, cultivating and advancing leaders who we have seen through the decades take on important leadership roles within the Jewish world and within the broader world.”
Brody is a perfect example of this. Since coming to Brandeis, she has taken on increasingly challenging leadership roles in the organization. After she graduates in 2024, Brody plans to work in the Jewish communal field with Jewish high school and college students.
Since launching the centennial campaign, Lehman has used the anniversary “to rally and activate a wide group of donors and philanthropists based on their understanding of how critical it is that we invest in the Jewish future,” he said. Nowadays, said Lehman, “every Jewish person is a Jew by choice. This is not a world where your Jewish identity or your engagement with it is a given.”
For that reason, Lehman believes that it is more important than ever that Hillel offers programming that makes Judaism inspiring to today’s diverse Jewish college students.
Jewish philanthropists appear convinced that Hillel is worthy of their support. The centennial campaign has attracted major Jewish funders including Bronfman, who is currently chair of the Hillel International Board of Governors. The heir and businessman, whose philanthropic interests include Jewish causes, youth engagement and Israel advocacy, made a gift to support the campaign’s $10 million Innovation Fund.
“Through gifts large and small, the Hillel movement has loudly affirmed our commitment to the future of Jewish student life,” said Bronfman in a press release. “The Jewish students of today face a new array of challenges and opportunities, making a robust, well-funded Hillel on their campus all the more essential. It is incumbent on all of us who passionately believe in the value of a vibrant Jewish future to support this campaign.”
Likewise, philanthropists Elena Neuman Lefkowitz, Jay Lefkowitz and Herbert Neuman made the lead gift to a campaign fund that will finance the construction of Cornell University’s new and first-ever Hillel building.
Said Neuman Lefkowitz in a press release: “We’re honored to help Jewish life on campus continue to grow and thrive by supporting a brand-new Hillel building that will serve as the home away from home for Jewish students at Cornell. Inspiring more students to connect with Jewish life and learning during their college years is vital to ensuring the Jewish future we all envision.”
Lehman believes that the success of the campaign signals a positive outlook for the future of Jewish peoplehood.
“So many in the Jewish community spend their time handwringing over the loss of Jewish affiliation, the lack of strength in Jewish identity and the lack of Jewish knowledge,” he said. “We don't buy that. I see an incredibly optimistic future for the Jewish community if we continue to innovate in how we make Jewish wisdom, practice and community relevant for every Jewish student — and if we are holistic in how we address their needs.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the number of campuses where Hillel has a presence.