While swaying to the music at a lake-side Havdalah service last year in St. Louis, Rebecca Maslow started to cry. “I had no idea what was going on,” she said of the service that marks the end of Shabbat. “I felt horrible. I felt like an outsider, like there was a secret handshake I didn’t know. But just look at me now.”
Maslow is one of 77 fellows nationwide in Hillel’s Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps. Three are New York area schools — New York University, Hofstra University in Uniondale, L.I., and Queens College. And as the school year ends, Maslow’s success in that position at Hofstra has caused Hillel officials to tap her to become that school’s Hillel program director in the fall.
The fellowship program has also transformed the life of Monica Loeb, 23, who liked it so much last year at Queens College that she stayed on for a second year.
“I’m learning so much about Judaism and myself,” said the native of Modesto, Calif., and graduate of San Diego State University. “I tried to be kosher, which I don’t think I would have if I had not been working in the Jewish community. Now when I go to synagogue, I enjoy it more. … A lot of people used to ask me why we did certain Jewish customs and I used to say, ‘Just because.’ Now I can answer some of them.”
For David Silberstein, 24, another fellow at Queens College who grew up in an Orthodox home in Los Angeles, working in this program has also been an eye-opener.
“When you come from an Orthodox background, you tend to isolate yourself from other Jews,” explained Silberstein, a graduate of Yeshiva University. “It’s a learning experience to be involved with the rest of the Jewish world.”
Steinhardt Jewish Family Service Corps fellowships are awarded to college graduates who commit themselves to spending a year on a college campus energizing Jewish students to get involved in Jewish activities. Studies have shown that enhancing Jewish identity during the formative college years sets the tone for later life.
The corps was started in May 1994 with 20 students, who were trained during the summer and then asked to have substantive contact “with 500 Jewish students who would [otherwise] not have been involved” in Jewish activities, according to Hillel’s president, Richard Joel.
The total cost for each fellow is $25,000. Philanthropist Michael Steinhardt agreed to underwrite half of the project if the colleges where they worked picked up the balance. The fellows themselves were paid $18,000, with the rest going toward benefits and to pay for their training.
The program proved so successful, that it was expanded to 46 fellows the following year and 61 the next. Interviews at Hofstra University and Queens College found Hillel students enthusiastic about the project.
“It’s changed my life,” said Rosy Kimchi, 21, a Queens College senior who was born in Israel and came to the U.S. at the age of 3. “I come from an area [South Merrick, L.I.] that is secular. When I came to Hillel, I saw other types of Jews; I was in culture shock. I think I have become more open minded, I guess you could call it religious. I feel like it’s more a part of my everyday life. I want to keep Shabbat when I have a family and I’m deciding whether to keep a kosher home. Before I came here, I never thought about those things.”
Kimchi and others said Loeb and Silberstein attracted them to Hillel.
“She would hang out in the kosher cafeteria with her bubbly personality and flowing red hair,” said Kimchi. “She was very noticeable because of her hair and because she is so tall. I remember her coming up to me and saying, ‘Hello, do you want to come to the open house?’ Usually everyone in the kosher cafeteria is Jewish, so she would go around and invite everyone to come.”
Arik Katzap, 20, a junior from Jamaica Estates, admitted that “a lot of the guys came because of her.” Others came because of Silberstein.
“Dave is like Norm on ‘Cheers’ — he sits down and starts a conversation and in 10 minutes you’re his best friend,” said Katzap.
“They both have charisma,” added Kimchi as he and the others sat in the dining room waiting to attend a lecture by Elie Wiesel.
Asi Klein, a 20-year-old freshman from Forest Hills who sports a beret and nose ring, said he usually did not come to events but was attracted by Silberstein and Loeb because they “made me feel comfortable. They did a lot to make me feel accepted.”
He said he comes from a more traditional Jewish background and found that “Hillel is an organization that brings all Jews together."
Loeb, who also has a UJA-Federation Continuity Grant to work with Jewish students at St. John’s University and Queensborough Community College, as well as students at Queens College who came from the former Soviet Union, said she is striving to reach “unreachable students.”
“I think this fellowship is a wonderful way to get students identified with their Jewish background,” she said. “I was highly involved in Hillel myself while in college. A lot of the stuff I do now I did as part of my social life on campus. I used to recruit students to become involved. … It’s really nice working in an environment in which we’re all pretty much the same age. In the real world, you are not going to meet so many people with whom you have so many common interests.”
Silberstein said he knows he will “never get another chance to be paid to do mitzvot, like visiting the sick and running charity programs. This is just an amazing opportunity to get paid to act as a catalyst for students to get involved — whether it’s a Friday night dinner or a peanut butter and jelly drive for the homeless.”
Having a chance to come back a second year to Queens College, Loeb said, was particularly rewarding because she could see that programs she introduced last year, such as a fashion show, were “taken over by the students because they were so excited about them last year.”
While Hillel members at Hofstra were holding a fund-raising auction in a classroom recently, Maslow sat in the hall and spoke about growing up as a Conservative Jew in a suburb of Cincinnati.
“My sister and I were the only two Jewish kids in the elementary school,” she recalled. “In high school, there were only two other Jews.”
When her high school merged with another and it became an “inner city school,” Maslow said her parents pulled her out and offered the choice of going to a Catholic, Jewish or private school. She chose the Catholic school.
“I grew up as the token Jew,” she explained. “The idea of going to a school where everyone was Jewish was very intimidating.”
But seeing all of her Catholic classmates’ knowledge of their religion prompted Maslow to want to learn more about Judaism. She got the chance when for the first time in her life she made friends with other Jews while a junior at Ohio University.
“My roommate was involved in rechartering UJA on campus and I became involved in helping to raise funds for it by babysitting, shopping for old people and doing other community service work,” said Maslow. “We had a Hillel fellow at Ohio U. last year and she said I should apply [for a fellowship] because I’d be awesome. So I applied.”
Maslow’s outgoing personality and desire to learn more about Judaism caught the eye of Rabbi Meir Mittelman, the executive director of Hofstra Hillel, who hired her immediately.
“She had energy, passion and creativity, which are wonderful qualities,” he said. “She was the ideal candidate for us. She didn’t have the Judaic background, but everything else was so terrific about her that that was OK.”
Maslow noted that her Judaic background has improved in the last year through weekly classes with the rabbi and that she will take a four-week intensive course this summer.
Many of the students Maslow works with at Hofstra said they have found her warmth and enthusiasm contagious.
“She reached out on a personal level and got to know the students, making it easier for us to participate and get involved,” said Andrew Ashkenase, 20, a junior from Great Neck, L.I.A transfer student from the State University at Albany, Ashkenase said he was impressed by the “meaningful” programs at Hofstra Hillel and that Maslow got him involved in their planning.
Sara Friedman, 19, a freshman from West Hartford, Conn., said Maslow’s presence on campus was important for her.
“You can go to her office if you have a problem and she will talk to you,” she said. “In high school, you had friends and parents [to talk to]; it’s good that in college she is there.”
Friedman said she was not involved in Jewish youth groups in high school because her friends didn’t join, but that she became active in raising money for UJA-Federation through Hillel “and I love it. I went to a UJA conference in Chicago and I had the best time. My parents can’t believe it. They told me, ‘Most students go to college and lose religion, you went and found it.’ And a lot of that is due to Becca, who has always been so supportive and enthusiastic.”
Another freshman, Julie Kaplan, 18, of Newton, Mass., said she went to a Hillel event when school started just to please her parents. She didn’t like it and had no plans of going back until she received a note from Maslow “that was different from a regular flyer” that invited all Jewish freshmen to make candy apples.
“I went because my friend wanted to do something and there I met Becca,” she said. “I don’t know how much I would have done [at Hillel] without Becca. I was never in USY [United Synagogue Youth] or any other Jewish activities before, but I’m enjoying it.”