Positioned in front of the University Student Union, the CSU San Marcos Hillel hosted their annual Chanukah Giveaway on Thursday, December 5, engaging 200 students about the holiday and celebrating with festive food and free giveaways.
Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after a group of Jewish rebel warriors – the Maccabees – successfully revolted against the Seleucid Empire and gained control of Judea. Tradition tells us that after restoring the Temple, they wanted to light the menorah (candelabra) that would indicate Jewish sovereignty, but found only one flask of oil to last one night. However, the small amount lasted eight nights, leaving time to prepare more oil, and catalyzing the miraculous celebration.
Jewish people around the world celebrate Chanukah by lighting a hanukkiah for eight nights and eating oil-based foods such as latkes or donuts. The CSUSM Hillel gave away free donuts, hanukkiot, and swag bags in exchange for participants sharing what they learned about the holiday.
Hillel began at CSU San Marcos in 2010 after they presented the need to expand Jewish life engagement opportunities for college students in North County and sought Leichtag Foundation’s support. At the time, the CSUSM student population was estimated to double within five years, which meant that the Jewish population on campus would be growing too.
According to CSUSM Hillel Director Wendy McCreary, students who participate in Hillel programming come from a diverse spectrum of backgrounds. Many are from interfaith households. Hillel strives to create a safe space for all students to explore their Jewish identities with the freedom to observe what works for them.
“Events like this allows students to learn about Judaism and connect with Jewish students,” says Rachel Baroway, President of the CSUSM Hillel. “We’re culture-based and we welcome everyone. We get to help everyone understand what it means to be Jewish on their terms.”
On the table’s display board were questions and answers ranging from “What does the word Chanukah mean?” to sharing the holiday’s history and the importance of the dreidel. Many students that passed by didn’t know what Chanukah was or that there was Jewish representation on campus. Eager to learn about the holiday, students lined up at the tables sharing their newfound knowledge of proper pronunciation and the story of the Maccabees.
“I find Jewish traditions pretty interesting,” said Alex Stephens, a student at the school. “I appreciate the commitment to those traditions.”
The core question that many Jewish organizations are reckoning with today is how to make Jewish life relevant to young adults. In the case of Hillel, it’s how to do so on college campuses.
“This semester I facilitated a Jewish learning fellowship,” says Nikki Glomb, the Springboard Fellow for Hillel of San Diego. “It was a 10-week seminar for tackling life’s big questions like, ‘is Shabbat countercultural,’ or how to disagree with people in productive way. I teach text studies, so we took both ancient and modern Jewish thought to make the questions relevant to them.”
According to the Hillel International’s Campus Support Director Michael Rabkin, Hillel engaged 140,000 students globally with deep immersive experiences last year. The purpose of Hillel is to make space and give students the power to reclaim what being Jewish is about.
Leichtag Foundation supports CSUSM Hillel’s work cultivating meaningful relationships between Jewish students, alumni and the San Marcos Jewish community that can eventually support and sustain them with a robust donor base.
The school offers guaranteed admission to students who are CSU-eligible in 10 nearby school districts, enabling many students to stay local. According to Wendy, this gives Hillel the unique opportunity to invest in and grow the local Jewish community.
“When you get to see the Jewish journey of the graduates, you see how they transformed from reserved, quiet students – who didn’t know how to identify Jewishly – to being confident, empowered, and proud to be Jewish,” says Wendy.