The Hillel Club at Queens College is today regarded as one of the pillars of student life on campus. Founded at QC in 1947, Hillel has been a community center for Jewish and non-Jewish students alike to come and unwind with friends, engage in activities sponsored by the club and, more importantly, to engage in Jewish learning.
Interim Executive Director Jenna Citron has been involved with Hillel since she was a student at Florida State University. Initially an intern and volunteer, Citron moved up the ladder to her first official position in Hillel, as a Jewish Student Life Coordinator at Florida State in 2010. Two short years later, she transferred her efforts to QC, where she became the Director of Jewish Student Life, then Assistant Director and now Interim Executive Director.
“To me, Hillel is community,” Citron says. “We strive to take the big barriers down and inspire Jewish college students to engage deeply with their Jewish identity – on their own terms. This is so special and so important. No other time in a person’s life is self-exploration more important than during the 3-4 years of college.”
“We offer experiences ranging from Jewish learning opportunities like our Jewish Learning Fellowship, to community Shabbat events like Free Friday Night Dinner, to Israel engagement, leadership opportunities for volunteers, paid internships and fellowship, opportunities to go to Israel, social programming, opportunities to explore the many communities that make up the Jewish community at QC like the Bukharian and Persian communities.”
Free Friday Night Dinner, more commonly referred to as FFND (pronounced “FIF-NID”), is one of the most anticipated events at the start of the school year. Students register in advance to come to school on Friday night, when the Jewish celebration of Shabbat begins. It is a night filled with Jewish prayer services, socializing, and, of course, free food. Interestingly enough, that is exactly how sophomore and computer science major Aaron Goldblatt became the Treasurer for QC Hillel.
“I ran for treasurer because, like most people, I am a fan of free food and that was the position which I felt I could best facilitate people eating it.” Goldblatt joined Hillel as a freshman, where he took on the role of holiday coordinator. Holiday coordinators generally compose ideas for events and generate a lot of enthusiasm from the school community. “[Hillel] really became a place that was very important to me and where I felt I could give back to the community by providing a place where they could help people who were new to this school, like I originally was, to make friends quickly.”
According to Citron, Hillel is the largest Jewish-student organization in the world, founded on 550 campuses across the United States and Canada, in addition to Israel, Russia, Poland, Brazil and many more. Hillel is a non-profit organization that has been named home to 4,000 students here at QC. In fact, Queens College is known to have one of the largest Jewish communities in the country.
In a world filled with anti-Semitism and hate-crimes committed by Judaism’s biggest enemies – neo-Nazis, anti-Zionists and BDS-supporters, just to name a few – there is strength in these numbers. Citron remembered that, “Last year we surveyed QC Jewish students about their experiences with Hillel and as Jewish students on campus. When asked ‘Have you personally experienced anti-Semitism because you are Jewish?’, nearly 90% responded ‘no.’ I will continue to work towards a world where 100% of students respond ‘no.’”
In response to the striking tragedy that recently occured at Pittsburgh, Citron recounted, “We quickly gathered Jewish student clubs and organizations together for a vigil. It was planned in little more than a day and still members of the QC Administration were there to be with us – including President Matos Rodriguez. This meant the world to me, the QC Hillel staff and students.”
In the future, we know Hillel will continue to expand and touch the lives of others as it has Jenna Citron and Aaron Goldblatt’s. Hopefully at one point, anti-Semitism will decline from its peak. Jews will be able to attend synagogue, to pray to their G-d, without fear of crime or hatred in their hearts.