When Drexel University student Madeleine Fortney applied to college, she considered a lot of factors, but one was non-negotiable. “I didn’t even consider schools without a Hillel,” says Madeleine, a third-year. On the other end of the spectrum was fourth-year Jonathan Coopersmith, who recalls, “I came to Drexel and my mom said, ‘You should join Hillel.’ And I said, ‘Who is Hillel?’” Both students laugh, since Jon and Madeleine now serve as student board President and Vice President, respectively, of their Hillel — a dynamic institution that’s thriving on college campuses all over our region.

The fact that Hillel drew two people from such different Jewish perspectives speaks to the way Hillel has placed itself at the forefront of Jewish engagement. By building Jewish life on campus, Hillels connect students to their Judaism during their formative, identity-seeking college years. On 550 campuses around the country, Hillel impacts hundreds of thousands of students through its programming, which includes Shabbat dinners, Israel education, holiday celebrations, religious services and volunteer and social opportunities.

Locally, our Jewish Federation supports Hillel at UPenn (with its impressive 17% Jewish undergraduate population) as well as at Temple and Drexel, both of whose campuses boast undergraduate Jewish populations of 5% and — spurred by Hillel’s robust presence — have seen recent growth in Jewish life. Additionally, Jewish Federation supports Hillels in Philadelphia (HIP), which provides part-time Hillel advisers to serve local campuses with fewer than 500 Jewish students: Arcadia University, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, Ursinus College and Villanova University; West Chester University, whose Jewish population has grown to a robust 500 students, has just received a full-time Hillel staff beginning this semester.

Back at the Drexel Hillel building, which was erected just two years ago to fill the formerly roving community’s need for a permanent space, Jon and Madeleine reflect on what Hillel means to them. “We engage students, whatever their Jewish background, in a way that allows them to walk the campus feeling strong in their identity as a Jew,” says Jon. As for Madeleine, she wears her answer on her sleeve — or, to be precise, on her left bicep, where she bears a tattoo of the globe emblazoned with the words kehillah kedoshah. “It means ‘holy community,’” explains Madeleine. “That’s what we’re all about.”

For more information about Hillels of Greater Philadelphia, click here.