According to Reform Judaism magazine, Penn enrolls about 2,500 undergraduate Jewish students, which adds up to roughly 25 percent of the student population. This makes Penn’s Jewish community one of the largest of all the private universities in North America.
Penn Hillel, the center for Jewish life at the University, was established in 1944 to serve this community, succeeding the Louis Marshall Society as the University’s Jewish student organization.
Jeremy Brochin has served as director of Penn Hillel for the past 21 years, arriving in the fall of 1987 from the University of Maryland, where he was associate director of the school’s Hillel chapter. Brochin says Penn’s elite status makes it a popular destination for Jewish students, as does the University’s proximity to Jewish population centers.
He says Penn now has something of a reputation in the Jewish community—and a good reputation, at that.
“There’s a bandwagon effect as well,” he says. “There’s a thriving and rich and intellectually stimulating Jewish community and I think students want to be part of that kind of community, and they want to be part of an excellent university, so I think all of those things are attractive.”
Penn Hillel provides students the opportunity to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity. Its offerings include Sabbath services, performances, kosher eating, film screenings, Jewish support organizations, a book club and discussions of Jewish law. “There’s a lot of stuff going on all the time,” Brochin says.
The Current recently sat down with Brochin to discuss his tenure at Penn Hillel, the changes he’s seen, and his hopes for Penn’s Jewish students.
Q. You’ve been at Penn Hillel for over two decades. Is there something specific about Penn that has kept you here?
A. First of all, it’s a tremendous Jewish community. It’s very active and the students are engaged and bright. The opportunity to work within the setting of the University and to partner with all kinds of groups, student groups and offices in the University, is natural and organic at Penn. The sense of Jewish life as part of University life feels very good and is of real importance at this campus.
Q. Have you seen many changes for Jewish students in your years here?
A. I’ve seen lots of different changes. I think over the years the cooperation and partnership of different communities is really quite exciting. Last spring we worked with Fox Leadership in having a Jewish/Muslim trip to New Orleans, which probably would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. We have a close relationship with the Greenfield Intercultural Center. We work closely with the [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender] Center. The founding of P.R.I.S.M., which is an interfaith leadership group of students, is new in the last three or four years, so I think in terms of the integration of student communities, the partnership with student communities, I think there’s been a lot of progress. I think in terms of other parts of my work, the excitement of students about both Jewish learning and Jewish celebration has increased many times. Another piece that’s changed is the opportunity for students to do different kinds of projects around the world. We’ve worked with some national organizations on trips to Mexico and Honduras and El Salvador in the last number of years. We send 80 to 100 students to Israel every year, besides the trips to New Orleans that we’ve had since Hurricane Katrina. These kinds of projects reflect the global perspective of Penn and where students are at currently.
Q. What are other developmental
changes have you seen?
A. I think the expansion of community service opportunities and students seeing much of that work in the context of their religious tradition. [They understand] those values stem not simply from their current experience, but are really entrenched in their family and in their community and they’re acting out those value commitments. We, for example, work with the University City Hospitality Coalition and run a meals-for-the-homeless program here on Sunday evening. We’ve worked with a variety of groups. We developed Focus First, a vision-testing program for children, this year. Those are just two examples of the programs that are really both a commitment to social service and to the value tradition of the Jewish community.
Q. Your Bridging the Gap program attempts to build bridges between the Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities at Penn. What type of events have you held?
A. Last year they did a concert on Jewish and Arab music. They worked on the trip to New Orleans. There also was, a couple weeks ago, a day where Jewish students visited the Muslim prayer services, and the Muslim students visited the Jewish prayer services.
Q. Is there a certain world issue that seems to be the most popular among Jewish students?
A. Clearly, among Jewish students the situation in Israel seems to be always on the front-burner. This fall, the election and all the issues surrounding the election were of concern to people—people of a strong political consciousness. A priority of ours that is unfortunately on the backburner a little bit is the situation in Darfur.
Originally published Dec. 4, 2008
Originally published on December 4, 2008