Heart to Heart program aims to build confidence and Jewish identity on campus

Heart to Heart program aims to build confidence and Jewish identity on campus

Shabbaton in Englewood to draw students from more than 24 colleges

Ariel Fisher, Becky Moses, and Teaneck resident Rachel Grosser invite fellow students to Heart to Heart Shabbat dinners on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. Hart Levine

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Hart Levine was a campus Hillel regular. “Hillel is the center of Jewish life at Penn – and I loved it,” Levine told The Jewish Standard. Given that there were some 2,500 Jewish students at the school but only about 500 were connected with Hillel, Levine wondered, “Where are the other 2,000?”

From that question arose Levine’s obsession with building Jewish life on campus – a focus that has propelled the now 24-year old bioengineering graduate into a fulfilling, if unconventional, post-college career. In 2010, Levine founded Heart to Heart, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to recruiting and providing support to Jewish students to reach out to their peers on campus.

Levine has organized a Shabbaton this weekend at Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood to train student leaders “in relationship-building as well as in acquiring practical skills to organize Shabbat dinners and holiday programs.” He hopes they will go on to become Heart to Heart leaders on their campuses.

Area families will host 60 students from 25 campuses “mostly in the northeast” but some who are coming in from as far away as Canada and who attend schools as distant as Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Other schools to be represented include Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Penn (which is in Philadelphia), the University of Maryland, Columbia University, New York University, Cornell University, Queens College, Goucher College in Baltimore, Md., Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

Rabbi Ely Allen, director of Hillel of Northern New Jersey, will lead a session called “Answering Tough Questions.” It will be “like a general ask-the-rabbi session…. It could be deep philosophical questions or how to engage unaffiliated students,” Allen said.

The focus of Heart to Heart, which exists on more than a dozen campuses across the country, including at Rutgers, is peer-coordinated, and peer-hosted, Shabbat dinners. But participants also plan student-run Passover seders and High Holiday services and have organized offbeat programs like “Chanukah caroling” as well as Chanukah candlelighting sessions in dorms, according to Levine.

In designing the program, Levine told the Standard, his thinking was, “Let’s make [Judaism] more intimate – let’s get a mix of regulars and non-regulars, let’s do a Shabbat dinner in the dorms, or in the lounge on your dormitory’s floor. Let’s show people ‘Judaism can be where you are, accessible to you.'”

Allen said, “I think it’s a fantastic idea. It complements what Chabad and Hillel are doing. A lot of unaffiliated students are not comfortable walking into a synagogue or meeting with the rabbi, but may feel more comfortable going with friends, not being in an ‘official’ environment. We want to support things like this in Englewood.”

Hillel and the Orthodox Union, through its NCSY alumnae department, are partner organizations with Heart to Heart.

When Levine graduated in 2010, the directors of a New York-based nonprofit called Project Shabbat, aware of his efforts, asked him if he would take over their organization. Hence Project Shabbat, which was dedicated to funding student-run Shabbat dinners and had already obtained its 501c3 charity status, merged with Heart to Heart.

Levine points out that while Heart to Heart does provide funds for students who can’t afford to attend Shabbat dinners – there is a nominal fee – it also provides student leaders with support, resources, and networking assistance. The program leverages a volunteer base to reach fellow students, and all benefit, according to Levine, who said he applied principles to its design that he learned as a bioengineering major.

“Hillel is doing great [on campuses like Penn or Rutgers] at getting 400 students a week to come,” Levine said. “But there are 2,000 students they can’t really reach. They have five or 10 staffers, but there’s only so much those individuals can do. This model empowers those 400 people. It’s a grassroots effort.”

Levine encourages students to reach out not only to friends but to less affiliated Jewish students they might see in class or in dorms.

While he is the only paid employee, Levine says he is running the organization as a “labor of love.” For now, it is his full-time job, but he is considering studying for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University in Manhattan.

Recent graduates and students rave about their experiences with Heart to Heart.

Yael Novick, 22, a social work major entering her junior year at Rutgers, says that participating in Heart to Heart has increased her confidence.

Novick, who received a small grant to host a Shabbat dinner at the house she shares with friends off-campus, said, “As long as you are Jewish, anybody can do it. It’s confidence-building. Hillel and Chabad dinners are beautiful – there are 100 people each week – but if you don’t know anyone it can be intimidating.”

Heart to Heart advises students to keep dinners to an “intimate eight to 12 students,” Levine said.

About hosting her dinner, Novick said she gave guests “a nice explanation of why we do what we do – [singing] Sholom Aleichem and [making] kiddush.”

She added, “I was nervous I wouldn’t know what to say or do at the first meal, but it’s pretty easy.”

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