Grieving Students Rely on Their Hillel Communities

Standing in the middle of New York’s Penn Station on her way home after her mother’s memorial service, Julia Brody, University of Delaware ’17, found a place to plug her phone in, with thoughts and memories of her mother still heavy in her head.

“We rarely think of grief and illness as struggles faced by college students.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

A man using using the same outlet struck up a conversation that soon turned to spirituality and human connection.

“I confided in this stranger that I’d begun questioning my Judaism after my mother died; he told me his Jewish faith guides him daily,” said Brody.

She was surprised by their shared faith. This one man’s story inspired her to reevaluate and re-establish her Jewish roots.

“It wasn’t the first time that sharing stories changed how I view the world. When I was a child, my family went on long car rides, listening to my mother tell masterfully crafted stories that transported us to a different world,” said Brody.

When she returned to campus, she began to participate more actively in Hillel. She interned and attended programs, so much so that she decided to start her own.

“I created a storytelling club,” Brody said. “Throughout the year, we tackled difficult questions and conversations that college students deal with on campuses across the country, like standing up to homophobic rhetoric or sexist comments from friends, classmates, or strangers.”

The club was a hit with students of all faiths and was nominated for the YoUDee Leadership Award by the University of Delaware celebrating outstanding leaders, events, and organizations in numerous categories.

Brody created an outlet for both herself and her peers, but as her graduation came closer, she worried that she wouldn’t find another student to carry on the legacy of her storytelling club.

Walking through Hillel one Friday night, she ran into a student she didn’t recognize, but who had heard of the storytelling club and wanted to join. Brody realized she’d found the person who could lead the club after she graduated.

“I took the run-in as a sign from my mom,” Brody recalled. “My involvement in Hillel and renewed Jewish identity allowed the club I created to carry on.”

* * *

Daniel Friedman, Florida Atlantic University ’17, lost his father and turned to Hillel to help him work through his grief.

Involved in Hillel since his freshman year, Friedman was known for his lighthearted sarcasm and his ability to lure laughter out of anybody who walked through the door. He’d never missed a Shabbat dinner or lunch and learn.

In his last two semesters at FAU, Friedman experienced multiple tragedies. Along with the loss of his father, he was mourning the lives of five others.

First, his paternal grandfather passed away. They were very close – Friedman lived with him and took care of him.

Not long after Friedman’s uncle and aunt died within a month of each other.

Then his cousin.

Three weeks later, his father.

Three days later, his maternal grandfather.

Hillel professionals could see he was struggling, despite a persistent smile.

“Each and every staff member took me aside and gave me their words of wisdom… They made sure that I’d be okay,” said Friedman. Their concern was genuine, he added – an act expected of family.

* * *

Fellow students at Hillel supported Madelaine Reis, University of Central Florida ’18, while recovering from surgery.

Reis has long struggled with illness due to a congenital disability she’s had since birth. Since her first surgery at age 7, she has struggled with myriad health problems, including a mass on her liver, kidney stones, pneumonia, pancreatitis, and a kidney infection.

“My body was poisoning me and damaging my liver,” Reis said.

After having surgery on her liver in September of last year, Reis found it difficult to relate to her peers and readjust to school. Maintaining a social life while restricted to a low-sodium and alcohol-free diet was nearly impossible, and she struggled to stay on top of her academic progress as her workload continued to climb.

Walking through the student union one day, Reis noticed a Hillel booth set up to promote Birthright Israel. She attended an information session and signed up for the very next trip. From that day forward, she said, she began to make lasting connections to other Jewish students at UCF.

“I had a growing support system,” she said, “And being able to go to dinners with people… instead of staying in because I can’t do much was very helpful.”

Reis credits her community at Hillel for helping her stay on track to graduate UCF next summer. She will earn two degrees in environmental science and political science.

“Whenever you feel like life isn’t working out, there are going to be people at Hillel who want to help you,” said Reis. “Hillel has helped me remember that I have a whole life to love – to be happy, to be alive, regardless of the pain.”

* * *

Hillel’s relationship-based engagement methodology has earned the organization several Slingshot awards for Jewish innovation, and all staff members are expected to develop meaningful, one-on-one relationships with every student. Hillel’s relational approach encourages local Hillels to hire professionals with experience in social work and active listening skills, the tools Hillel professionals often need to help struggling students.

For this reason, Sheila Katz, Hillel International’s vice president for student engagement and leadership, said she finds these students’ experiences with Hillel unsurprising.

“Our campus Hillels can only fulfill the mission to engage and inspire every Jewish student when we focus first on what’s going on in their lives and give every individual the support they need, and second help them connect those things to their Jewish identity,” said Katz. “The foundation of our work is caring for each and every student, being there on their Jewish journey and their life journey.”

We rarely think of grief and illness as significant struggles faced by college students. But when tragedy hits, it’s good to know that Jewish students can turn to their campus communities for the resources they need to find a path forward.

Michelle Rubinov was born and raised in Queens, NY, but has recently relocated to Boca Raton, FL. She is currently a junior at Florida Atlantic University, majoring in journalism and minoring in English and sociology. In her spare time, Michelle likes to travel, write, and watch “The Bachelor” with her fiancè.

Paige Gutter contributed to this article.

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