Club Corner: Secular Jewish group Hillel breaks challah over Shabbat dinner

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Hillel routinely holds shabbat dinners to celebrate the sabbath, complete with traditional Hebrew prayer. - Photo provided by Hillel

In an inconspicuous room above the student center pit, a group of about 15 students sang in unison. As a plate of challah, braided ceremonial bread, was passed around, the Motzi blessing was recited and the members of the Rowan University Hillel chapter each took a piece.

Rugelach is a Jewish pastry similar to a sticky chocolate croissant. – Staff photo/Nicole Mingo

Students in yarmulkes passed around dishes of falafel, matzah balls, rugelach, hummus and pita. Tiny cups of Welch’s grape juice served as a surrogate for wine during the kiddush prayer.

The club’s Shabbat ceremony, held to commence the Sabbath, is secularized for those unaware of its tenets.

Though the group is based on a collective Jewish identity, being accessible and open to everyone is something they take pride in. The group has been chartered on Rowan’s campus for 17 years, though the attendance has been rocky in the past. These days, 50 members belong to the group and Shabbat ceremonies are held twice a month.

Surrounded by other clubs dedicated to politics, sports or even accounting, Hillel aims to be one thing to many people.

“Our main focus is being a social group,” said club president Mollie Rubinstein, a junior public relations and psychology major. “Our goal is to make campus feel like home…it really is a family setting.”

For Jennifer Gruberg, a sophomore history and secondary education major who has been in Hillel since she came to Rowan, the club brought her closer to her faith.

“Before I came to Rowan, I didn’t care at all about who I am, what my religion is,” she said. “This club changed my life. We’re a family. I come to them when I have issues at home, with my anxiety and it’s a second family on campus. They’re always here for anyone that needs it.”

Previously, club attendance struggled past one or two members at a time.

“We had a few years where we froze the club,” said Marc Fleischner, faculty advisor. “Instead of losing our charter, we’d freeze the club instead of having to re-petition. Some years have been a struggle because Rowan wasn’t a place Jewish students looked at.”

However, as Rowan’s campus expanded, so did the Jewish student population.

“People see a religious organization and they kind of turn their noses up at us, when in reality this is just a place to come and have fun and meet new people and get to see a different perspective.” – izzy wellman

Many club members found their way to the club through Birthright Israel, an organization that sponsors “heritage” trips to Israel for those who hold Jewish heritage. Hillel helps those students through the steps, and the members have grown closer in the process, with many of them going to Israel together.

In addition to working consistently with the Muslim Student Association and the Interfaith Council, the club also holds events like Challah for Hunger alongside Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill. The profits from the events will go towards feeding the hungry. Last semester, the club even raised money for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies on campus.

One organization they support in particular is Fantastic Friends, a social group that invites teens and preteens with special needs to hang out with other people in a safe environment.

“It gives them a chance to make these special connections that they wouldn’t be able to make under normal circumstances,” said Mallory Osmun, a freshman and volunteer coordinator for Fantastic Friends.

“It’s not really anything religious, it’s just our club helping their club,” Gruberg said. 

Freshman member and Religious Chair Izzy Wellman helps lead services with her guitar. – Photo provided by Hillel

The club keeps meetings open to everyone, regardless of religion or background. Freshmen member and Religious Chair Izzy Wellman helped lead services with her guitar, and stated that even completely secular services can help people learn and understand the religion and the ceremony.

“Our services usually have very minimal Hebrew in them,” she said. “People see a religious organization and they kind of turn their noses up at us, when in reality this is just a place to come and have fun and meet new people and get to see a different perspective.”

After being named SGA’s club of the month for December and January, Hillel’s desire to work with other clubs is palpable. As of right now, having a space for members and growing past 50 members are their goals. To find out more information about Shabbats or Hillel, email hillel@rowan.edu or find them on Facebook at Rowan University Hillel.

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