Jewishness and Hillel

Jewishness at Colby

Click here for a study by Thomas Williams ’13 that explores the place of Jewishness on campus from 1935-1995 through the lens of the Interfaith Association and Colby Hillel.

Hillel at Colby: The Early Years

Thomas Williams ’13 (January 2013)

Hillel students at a 1972 student activities fair
Hillel students at a 1972 student activities fair

Hillel is a global organization dedicated to Jewish Life on college campuses.  A Hillel group at Colby has existed for nearly 70 years, but there is no official history of Hillel at Colby.  I researched Colby Hillel through alumni interviews, documents found in Special Collections, and the Echo archives.   I discovered that although Hillel was established at Colby in the ’40s, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that Hillel at Colby took off.

There was no organization at Colby dedicated to Judaism or Jewish culture before Hillel was founded in 1944.  While there was no direct announcement of this, an article in the Echo in 1945 reported the election of a Hillel president.  It stated, “The Colby Hillel Society, started here last year, is an organization which has as its purpose the fostering of greater understanding and appreciation by students of the Jewish faith of their religious and cultural backgrounds.”  This statement of purpose reports the establishment of Hillel at Colby, and it reflects the purpose of the national organization of Hillel, to “inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life.”  Over the next five years, Hillel would host a couple events each year that were reported in the Echo.  These included outings, conferences with other Maine Hillel groups, and the occasional guest speaker.

The ’50s were less eventful for Hillel.  The Oracle, Colby’s yearbook, published club affiliations.  From this, we know that Hillel maintained an average of 36 members Hillel through most of the decade, but it all but disappears from the Echo between 1950 and 1960.  Between 1950 and 1960, there are two articles about regional Hillel conventions and two about guest speakers, one a Jewish author and the other a civil rights worker.  This lack of representation in the Echo shows how it is not a great model for measuring Jewish activities on campus.  According to Judy Brody (’58), “Hillel was an active, functioning group and they did bagel breakfasts and they did a model Seder.” The fact that Hillel is mostly absent from the Echo suggests that Hillel was somewhat separated from the general campus: the Echo rarely reported on Hillel, and Hillel rarely used the Echo to announce events.

For most of the ’60s, Hillel continued to be invisible, but membership dropped.  In 1966 and 1968, there were only 4 and 5 Hillel members listed in the yearbook.  Charlie Miller (’69) described Hillel events as “not that regular and… not that well attended.”  He did confirm that these events were “a social time for people who were Jewish to get together,” though.

Then, in the ’70s, Hillel experienced a bit of a renaissance.  The very beginning of this can be seen in 1968, when Hillel is finally talked about again in the Echo.  In 1972, a student government representative sent a letter to the Echo encouraging students to stand up against inequities in student government spending.  As an example of this, he says that Hillel received $250, while the Colby Christian Fellowship and the Newman Club (a Catholic group) only received about $150.  In defense, the president of Hillel stated that “While it is true that Hillel’s membership is only 150… our activities are open to the whole Colby Community.” He argues that these events, including a concert, movie screenings, and breakfasts, are worth the increased budget.  Through the rest of the ’70s, Hillel was fairly active (or at least visible in the Echo).  There are numerous bagel breakfasts, a few speakers, and holiday events.  Yearly activity fluctuated, most likely because of changing student leadership, but Hillel saw a great increase in membership and activity during the ’70s.

These examples indicate that something had changed about the public presence of Jewishness at Colby.  Maybe it was this growth of Hillel that spurred its newfound visibility, the first mention of a Passover Seder on campus that Spring—with over 80 people attending—and the first advertisement of High Holiday services in the Echo the next fall.  It’s also possible that Jewish students at Colby felt more comfortable with their Jewishness:  in 1967,  Israel defended itself against invading Arab armies in the Six-Day War, spurring an increase in Jewish pride.  Perhaps, as religion became less important within American society, Colby seemed less like a Christian community and therefore more receptive to non-Christian cultures.  In any case, Hillel at Colby shifted from a small, fairly isolated group to an open community, inviting the entire campus to take part in their Jewishness.