Jews from across the Ivy League gathered at Yale over the weekend for Hillel’s first-ever Ivy League Jewish Conference.
The conference included Friday night dinner, prayer services, discussion sessions and social activities, most notably a concert by Israel’s top hip-hop group, Hadag Nachash. Zach Kagin ’11, co-president of Yale Hillel, Yale’s branch of the international organization for Jewish undergraduates, said the conference was designed to allow students from various Hillel chapters to get to know each other and learn from each other’s experiences coordinating Jewish life on campus. Approximately 80 students from other schools came to campus for the weekend, and Yale Hillel co-president Yaron Schwartz ’11 estimated that approximately 300 Yalies participated in at least one of the conference’s events.
“In addition to people getting to know people from other schools and establishing friendships, one of the most amazing things was that the people there were really engaged with their peers about what they can learn from one another and how they can improve their Jewish communities,” Schwartz said.
Wayne Firestone, president of Hillel International, addressed conference attendees at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale on Friday night. He discussed how students can be involved in Jewish life on campus, drawing on his experience with Hillel as a student, and he stressed that students should not let anything stop them from pursuing their passions.
The Hadag Nachash concert Saturday night drew the biggest crowd of any of the weekend’s events. The band kicked off its North American tour before a packed crowd at the Slifka Center.
In discussion sessions on Saturday, students explored the issues their various Jewish communities face, addressing a range of topics including perspectives on Israel, Jewish dating and on-campus Hillel event-planning.
While this was the first ever Jewish conference for the Ivy League, the discussion groups were reminiscent of the Yale-Harvard-Princeton Hillel Colloquium. The colloquium, which occurred annually from 1947 until 1972, started as a Harvard-Yale event, and a few years later began including students from Princeton and nearby women colleges.
The nature of these conferences of past, however, was different, according to Dan Oren ’79, author of “Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale.”
“[The focus was] on a high intellectual level, to address issues of Jewish concern on a nationwide and worldwide basis,” he said. “In 1947, one couldn’t be an alert Jew in the world without being sensitive to the recency of the Holocaust and the hope for the state of Israel.”
Rabbi James Ponet ’68 — Yale’s Jewish chaplain and the head of the Slifka Center, who said he attended Yale while quotas for Jews were being removed — said the colloquia used to have a different tone, which reflected a “profound awareness that we [were] not fully at home, that we have crossed over boundaries.”
Now that those feelings of isolation are less prominent, Ponet said, this weekend’s conference focused more on having Jewish leaders from various campuses meet and engage in meaningful conversations about how to improve their Jewish communities, rather than discussing Jews’ place in America.
Kagin said he and Schwartz had been thinking of hosting this conference since last May, when they became co-presidents of Hillel.
“We wanted to give back to the community of Jewish college students and show them a good time,” Kagin said.
Coincidentally, Yale hosted the first ever Ivy Muslim conference two weekends ago. Coordinator for Muslim Life Omer Bajwa said that although the two events were planned separately, Yale is an ideal host site for these conferences because it is centrally located and because “it really does take this notion of leadership seriously.”
“Our hope is that this will be used as a model for events between Ivy League schools,” Kagin said. He and Schwartz said they would like to see conferences for Ivy League Jews continuing in future years.
Princeton sophomore Avital Hazony said Sunday that she would be eager to attend and even plan future events like Yale’s. Most importantly, she said, the conference gave her “the confidence to make real the visions I have for my Jewish community.”
Though there was generally a lighthearted and enjoyable atmosphere at the conference, students also took time to remember two members of the Jewish Ivy League community who recently died. Conference attendees gathered Saturday in the memory of Cornell freshman Bradley Ginsburg, a member of the school’s Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, who died last week, Schwartz said. A small memorial was also held Friday for Avi Schaefer, a freshman at Brown who had planned to attend the conference but was killed by a drunk driver a week and a half ago.
“We should all be energized by Avi’s vision, excitement and passion,” said his friend Jonah Fisher, who spoke Friday night. Schaefer, who served in the Israeli army before starting college, had advocated for Jewish-Arab dialogue at Brown.
According to the Yale Hillel Web site, approximately 23 percent of Yale’s undergraduates are Jewish.