“They’re figuring out who they are and what’s important to them on their own terms, and to be able to provide students with a Jewish community and a context in which to make Judaism relevant and vibrant to them is exciting to me.”
Under Gauss’ leadership, N.C. Hillel has grown significantly both at UNC and other campuses across the state. Typically, a Hillel organization will serve a particular college campus or an urban area; though headquartered in Chapel Hill, the Hillel is a statewide organization that currently serves over a dozen campuses across the state.
Gauss said the Jewish population at North Carolina schools starkly contrasts those of schools such as Tufts and Yale, where Jewish students compose about 25 percent of the student population. At some North Carolina universities where N.C. Hillel operates, Gauss said Jewish students make up as little as 1 percent of the population.
For this reason, part of Hillel’s mission is to educate non-Jewish students about Judaism. But Gauss saud the Hillel’s mission expands well beyond worship, too.
“Worship is, relative to the other things we do, a smaller portion of our function,” he said. “It’s still important, but I think the community piece and the fundamental questions of why being Jewish matters, and how our tradition is relevant to people are just as important.”
One piece of Jewish wisdom is encapsulated in the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam,” which literally means “repairing the world.” Gauss said the principle suggests that people are obligated to be God’s partners in pursuit of healing and perfecting the world.
For many students, the worship aspect of Hillel is not the driving force behind their involvement. Junior Meredith Blumberg, UNC Hillel’s vice president of communications and finance, started coming to N.C. Hillel during her first year and found the organization offers far more than simply religious instruction.
“I feel like Hillel is a safe space you can go to for services and a great social network, but also to explore Judaism and what it means to you,” she said.
Though students may come to Hillel for a litany of reasons and find meaning in any number of its facets, the promise of a place of belonging for students of any background remains constant.
First-year Hannah Factor said when she arrived at UNC in August, the Hillel welcomed her with open arms.
“They want to encourage students to participate in a Jewish community on campus,” she said.
“They’re very warm and welcoming, and I definitely felt that immediately.”