Oregon State Hillel blooms through pair’s efforts, ideas
By VANESSA VAN PETTEN, Special to Jewish Review
article created on: 2011-08-15T00:00:00
The Hillel at Oregon State University is a bootstrapping, vibrant community of young Jewish students. At the helm are two passionate students, Sarah Saul and Layton Dessert.
Sarah, a 22-year-old political science and Spanish double major, walked onto the OSU campus in September 2007 believing there was no Jewish community on campus. Sarah recalled, “Freshman year I thought Hillel was only at University of Oregon. It wasn’t on my radar at OSU.” However, during her sophomore year, she began to search for other members of the Jewish community.
Her hunt was not easy. “I went looking for the Hillel and couldn’t find anything. It wasn’t easily accessible at all.” Finally, after calling and emailing she found out about a Hillel bowling night. She laughed as she remembered her first Hillel event, “There weren’t even enough people to make a team. It was a disaster.”
A few weeks later she decided to attend the Hillel elections with her future co-president, Layton Dessert.
“I got there and even though I had no intention of running I ended up getting elected for co-president,” she said.
And so began Sarah and Layton’s crusade to strengthen, fund and build the Hillel at OSU.
Their journey has not been an easy one. With barely any outside funds, Sarah and Layton began to finance Hillel efforts themselves—creating posters and brochures and buying bagels and food for events to attract students. Sarah reminisced about all the creative ways they tried to attract Jewish students, “In the beginning we would try to take pictures of the same people in different poses so it looked like we had a big group.”
When Layton and Sarah organized their first Shabbat dinner and attracted more than 35 students, a major jump from their typical three to four students per event, they knew they were finally tapping into OSU’s quiet Jewish community. Their tireless efforts to reach out to the Jewish students have been hugely successful, throwing events that attract more students than even some of University of Oregon’s Hillel programs.
OSU’s informal Hillel house, a 1940s home nestled in the cozy Corvallis neighborhood is now brimming with excited students—and blooming romances. Sarah shares candidly about the emails she receives from Jewish parents inquiring about the OSU dating scene.
“I tell them we have some attractive Jewish students here and they certainly do come together,” she says—confident because of her own 4-year-long relationship with co-president, Layton.
Even though students are participating, every event is a struggle. The OSU Hillel was only recently recognized as a ‘small and mighty’ branch, making it difficult for them to get grant money compared to larger, more recognized Hillel’s. They have to rely on small donations from parents and, unfortunately already strapped students.
Sarah lamented, “We do our best to make every event as cheap as possible. We can only charge $3-$5 for pizza nights because no one has any money, but they still want to come and participate.”
Despite their growing numbers, their miniscule budget only allows them to have Shabbat dinners once per term, unlike many larger Hillels, which have them every Friday night. Unfortunately, the co-presidents have found that if they charge for events, students do not come because they cannot afford it.
“Some people don’t come to Passover because they can’t pay for the dinner.” She sadly added, “Our Menorah broke last year and we didn’t have the money to buy a new one.”
Even though lack of funding can be challenging for Jewish OSU students, it has certainly brought them closer together. For their first Passover, Jewish students worked together on a Seder—scrounging for ingredients, borrowing pots and pooling resources to get lamb shanks.
Sarah described their efforts, “We were all on the phone with our moms and grandmas trying to figure out recipes for gefilte fish and maror. We had no measuring cups or anything.”
Fortunately, with some donations from the local Jewish umbrella organization Beit Am, they were able to pull the event together.
“We believe we had to have some higher help with these events.” Sarah also explained that there is a wonderful silver lining to the group’s financial struggles: “Working together with my friends, I have never felt more Jewish, we are able to lean on each other. And even though we have no money, at least we have students who want to participate no matter what we do.”
As Sarah heads off to get a second degree in Madrid, Spain, she worries about leaving the fiery, but fundless group behind. “I’m afraid of handing over the reins to the future committee with no money.” However, she hopes that as more people learn about the strength of the OSU Hillel, it will attract not only more Jewish students, but also more Jewish support.
For more information, email Oregonstatehillel@gmail.com or visit their website oregonstate.edu/groups/hillel/index.html.