Two staff members of Hofstra University’s Office of Event Management stopped by the Hofstra Hillel center one recent Friday morning to discuss a Shabbat meal the group was to host that evening. Before they left, they asked Rabbi Meir Mitelman, the former executive director of Hofstra’s Hillel chapter who now serves as its director of community outreach, for some cards.
Some cards of thanksgiving. For Thanksgiving.
In the last decade, a “Thanks & Giving Project” initiated by Hillel, under the aegis of Rabbi Mitelman and his successor as Hillel director, Rabbi David Newman, has grown into a campus-wide tradition — students, faculty members and other school employees receive pre-printed postcards on which they write individualized messages of gratitude that go out most frequently to the unsung Hofstra staff members who keep the campus humming.
“Lots of people write lots of cards,” Rabbi Mitelman said. “It’s become bigger and bigger every year.” The submission deadline has moved up in recent years to keep the students who volunteer to deliver them from being swamped in the days before Thanksgiving break.
In an era of emails, text messages and tweets, the Hillel project is a throwback to old-fashioned, hand-written — or hand-printed, in the case of many college students who have not learned cursive script — notes that reflect the message of Thanksgiving. It’s a tradition with a Jewish twist.
“Giving thanks is an integral part of Jewish values,” said Rabbi Mitelman, a Houston native and Yeshiva University ordainee who has served at the Hempstead, L.I., school since 1985. “It’s very much a part of what we are.”
The most likely recipients of the cards are people who work in such places as campus security, food services and the custodial staff. “These folks don’t often get thanked,” Rabbi Mitelman said.
According to campus lore, the person who received the most cards was the recently retired “omelet lady,” a long-time worker in a campus cafeteria who made popular omelets.
Mary Laurno, receptionist at the office of residential life, keeps the cards she receives thumb-tacked next to her. “Because I know I’ve made a difference to people.”
A popular custodian who declined to be interviewed keeps the many cards he has received taped to the inside of his locker.
“I don’t know anybody who throws them out,” said Rabbi Mitelman.
He called the Thanksgiving project the most successful social action initiative in which he has participated at Hofstra — including an AIDS Quilt Project and a Hands Across Hofstra fundraising project.
“The project is pure gold,” said Rabbi Dave Siegel, who as executive director of Hillel Hofstra for six years has worked to expand the project’s size.
“We live in a world where we rarely extend our gratitude to others,” said Mia Fabiani, a sophomore who has helped coordinate the project as Hillel’s social action coordinator intern. Two Hofstra students, Tia DiSalvo and Danielle Klein, sat in the Hillel office one recent morning, sharing stories of their participation in the Thanks & Giving project. Klein wrote out about 15 cards last year. “I expect to do way more this year.”
At this time of year, said Josh Perloff, president of Hofstra Hillel, people on campus ask him, “Where are the cards?”
The project — co-sponsored by Hofstra’s Inter-Fraternity/Sorority Council, Muslim Students Association, Newman Club (Catholic), Protestant Community and Office of Residential Programs — each year distributes yellow cards to be disseminated on campus, and blue ones with space on one side for an address and stamp, to be sent to recipients off-campus.
Rabbi Mitelman estimated that the project, which began with 600 cards, has distributed some 8,500 in the last 10 years.
The project has spread to at least two other universities under the leadership of people with Hofstra roots.
Sarah Young, the Hofstra Interfaith Center’s former liaison to the Office of Students Affairs, has brought the project to Buffalo State College, where she now is director of student life. She partners there with the Newman Club in the “wonderful project,” she wrote in an email interview.
Rabbi Lyle Rothman, now a campus rabbi and Jewish chaplain at the University of Miami Hillel, spent three recent years at Hofstra as Hillel’s director of Jewish life and learning.
He began his position in Florida this summer.” When I first got to the school, I introduced the idea to my staff and they loved it,” he said in an email interview.
“Since this is our first year we hope to send out 750-1,000 cards, and we will keep the program going through the end of the fall semester,” Rabbi Rothman wrote. “November, especially after we change the clocks, is an especially dark and cold time of the year. The Thanks and Giving Project truly brings some light to each person who receives a card. This project does more than bring a smile — it has the potential to change lives.”
At Hofstra, Hillel prints the cards, picks them up from the dorms and other campus sites where they are distributed, hand delivers the yellow ones on campus, and mails the blue ones.
Guidelines: “Express gratitude to people who have been kind to you, inspired you, believed in you.” “Be specific in saying thank you.” “Appreciate what you have.”
Typical messages: “Thank you for keeping us safe.” “Thank you for all the hard work you do to keep Hofstra looking beautiful.” “I am really glad I have you as a teacher.”
Now, said Jennifer Piren, assistant director of event management, “people expect this … ‘Thanksgiving is coming up.’ Time for yellow cards.” “Now it’s part of the Hofstra culture.”
Piren, who has received many cards over the years from students and other members of the Hofstra community, said she sends her own batch each year.
Sofia Pertuz, who has served as the school’s dean of students for two years, keeps hers at her desk. She began working at Hofstra in October 2014, unaware of the cards project. “All of a sudden I started getting all these yellow cards.
“I brag” about the Hofstra tradition to colleagues at other universities, Pertuz said, adding the project’s influence “lasts beyond this [Thanksgiving] season” on campus.” Some students go up to campus employees to offer thanks in person.
Rabbi Mitelman said the thanksgiving he hoped to spread on campus a decade ago has also come back to him. “I’ve gotten lots of cards over the years.”