Celebrating Jewish Life – and Community – On Campus

A typical Sunday morning for many students on campus includes a visit to Hillel – where its weekly bagel breakfast is a popular social event for Jewish and non-Jewish students alike. It’s a delicious and fun way to catch up with friends before the school week starts.

Certainly, for some students the attraction of Hillel is the free food. For others, Hillel provides a deeper connection, one of community, friendship and faith.

Junior Staci Babich learned about Hillel from family, but never expected it to change her entire collegiate experience. After attending her first bagel brunch two years ago, she never looked back.

“Hillel became a home away from home,” she said, having quickly become a regular at the events and house. “Whether I was struggling or doing well, it made a home for me.”

Founded at the University of Illinois 99 years ago, Hillel has become a beacon of Jewish campus life at over 500 institutions of higher education around the country. Bradley’s Hillel was established in 1948.

Many of Bradley Hillel’s activities, such as Monday “Chillel” sessions and hosting fortnightly Shabbat dinners, are designed to fortify the already strong bonds within the group. Even though the pandemic has changed slightly how they eat, said executive director Matt Lorch, it has not changed the sense of community and togetherness.

Hillel also offers students the chance to learn more about Judaism and Israel through various classes, as well as the Hebrew language. Don’t expect to learn Talmudic Hebrew, as the aim of the course is to teach the living Hebrew of modern Israel, with focus on words and phrases for daily use.

As executive director, Lorch helps to manage the Hillel House and chapter’s activities, but emphasizes that it is ultimately a student-led organization. “They take ownership of this and run with it, and create this wonderful chemistry and culture,” he said.

In parallel with their community gatherings, Hillel focuses on external engagement through events like the popular Sunday bagel breakfasts and “Tuesday Schmoozeday” at the Michel Student Center. These events afford cross-cultural engagement opportunities, as well as introduce Hillel to a wider audience. Lorch and Babich noted some non-Jewish students attend Hillel events far more regularly than their Jewish friends.

For Babich, currently the intern responsible for engagement, this means sharing what she gets from this community with others. Being proactive, she enjoys making the overtures – especially to newer, shyer students.

“Come by, say hi, chill, get a bagel, let’s talk a little,” she likes to say.

Ironically, one of the newcomers she welcomed was her own sister Lexi, who had a similarly eye-opening experience during her first Sunday bagel breakfast last fall. She said participating in Hillel activities has made the transition to college life easier.

Both Babich sisters said being part of Hillel has also strengthened their faith. Yet they believe religion is just one part of the Hillel experience, as their goal is to foster a welcoming environment for everyone – sometimes one bagel at a time.

Although many of Hillel’s events seemingly revolve around food, it is the community of breaking bread together that is important, Lorch said.

“If you come with an appetite, everyone is welcome here.”

- Mel Huang

Bradley Jewish students light Menorah candles.