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'Jewish joy': ASU Hillel emphasizing sense of belonging and normalcy

ASU Hillel faced a difficult last semester, but the new year is dedicated to returning back to normal living


Outside of ASU's Hillel Jewish Student Center on Mill Avenue in Tempe on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Spherical string lights wrap above members of ASU Hillel who sit under three white canopies. After praying, they begin to grab food while conversation erupts from each table. People walk around, socializing over challah bread with friends they have not seen since last semester, while others are talking to their student leaders for advice. The sun sets on the merrily crowded parking lot. 

This is the Welcome Shabbat for the Jewish organization ASU Hillel, and this is the first time since Sept. 29 that they have held a Shabbat outdoors. 

"We prioritize safety, and it's really important for us, especially as Jewish students within the world right now," said Ariella Golden, a junior double majoring in social work and psychology and the chief of staff at ASU Hillel. "We have rising rates of antisemitism, and it's important to arm students with the correct information and make sure that they know that safety is the priority. We want you to feel connected."

Hillel is starting the semester positively, relying on their efforts to provide their students with a better understanding of what Judaism means to them amid ongoing tensions in the University. 

At the Hillel Jewish Student Center in Tempe – situated next to Chipotle and King Coffee on Mill Avenue – ASU Hillel hosted their first Shabbat for the second semester: Welcome Shabbat.

"Yes, it is a place of worship, but it's a community center," Golden said. "I have taken naps upstairs. I pulled out a blanket and said, 'You know what? I'm tired.' It's a running joke. I'm here all the time."

A necessary step to reaching a comfortable position as an organization is to ensure its members' safety, according to Hillel's leaders. At Welcome Shabbat, security stood watch outside the premises while Golden worked the sign-in desk, approving every person who RSVP'd for the event.

The Hillel Jewish Student Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the weekdays and closed on the weekends. These times may vary based on events. 

"We are going to continue to make sure that our building functions as a community center and that we are taking the proper measures to make sure students are safe," said Taylor Silverman, assistant director at ASU Hillel. "Even if we can't physically have our doors open all the time, we want our space to be warmly open and welcoming."

According to Golden, Hillel provides students with many avenues of expression for their identities. 

"In the coming semester and constantly, Hillel ASU provides students with a comfortable, safe space where they can express their identity in whatever way that looks best for them," Golden said. "If that's their Jewish identity, but then also other identities that they choose to bring to the Hillel space."

Beth Goldsobel, the student president at ASU Hillel, said that the organization is dedicated to being able to host a space for Jewish students with differing opinions because providing a space for those tough conversations is essential. Last semester, Hillel held several sessions and conversation options for the community to emphasize that they are constantly in a supportive space. 

Freshmen are also given several opportunities to stay involved at ASU Hillel through attending programs and events and pursuing leadership opportunities in the organization, according to Golden.

"There are so many ways to get involved," Silverman said. "We really pride ourselves on thinking about all the ways a student may want to engage with Hillel. Not every Jewish student has the same religious background, cultural background, or connection to their identity. And what's beautiful about Hillel is you can show up how you are."

ASU Hillel is providing students with opportunities to talk to leaders and staff members about their concerns or questions about how to operate in a recently tense environment for the Jewish people, according to Goldsobel. 

As ongoing tensions rose in the university community, Hillel's navigation of how to provide students with an open space became difficult last semester.

"We had to shift our emphasis," said Abe Mogelson, a sophomore studying kinesiology and a student outreach chair for ASU Hillel. "Are we going to continue like nothing's happening, or are we going to try to help students as much as possible and provide a safe and informational place where everybody can talk, share their feelings, but also feel comforted and at home? And so because we're shifting over to that, it hasn't been a normal Hillel year."

Starting the second semester, Hillel plans to return to a space where ASU Jewish students can comfortably form a community and engage in fun experiences.

"The community has grown and become closer, and I hope in the second semester we can maintain informing students," Mogelson said. "And providing a safe space for them but also get back into things and having these fun events that we usually have and hopefully get back to normal."

ASU Hillel prides itself in its ability to cooperate with the ASU Chabad organization as well by helping students open themselves up to different ways of embracing their Judaism. Hillel’s commitment to provide their members with a space to share their identity and grow closer as a community is not a new experience, but helping students understand the conflict in Gaza fully is difficult.

Although students face difficulties in the outside world, Welcome Shabbat was overflowing with members and deafening laughter, giving students the chance to share a sense of belonging. 

"It's on my mind. Obviously, it's always on my mind," Golden said. "But right now is the time for Jewish joy."

Edited by Katrina Michalak, Walker Smith and Grace Copperthite.

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