After years of hosting various events to honor Jewish culture, USF Hillel celebrated its first ever Jewish Life Festival on Nov. 13.
The celebration, which drew around 100 students members of the public, honored the Jewish community, according to USF Hillel Executive Director Sylvie Feinsmith.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for years,” she said. “I’ve been on our campus for eight years, and I’ve always recognized that we need a Yom Keyf, which is like a fun day in Hebrew. We needed something for the community to rally around and just to enjoy ourselves.
“The timing happens to be perfect because over the last month, there’s been such a rise in Jew hatred in our country. Whenever antisemitism rises, whenever we feel marginalized, we feel threatened, we’re upset or hurt, there’s always community. So what better time to gather and have fun. It just worked out perfectly.”
The event was held at the Morris and Bertha Escoli Center for Jewish Campus Life. Activities included caricature drawings, a photo booth and bounce house, airbrush T-shirt painting and various raffles and contests. For those looking to learn more about Jewish culture, USF Hillel also hosted Israeli food and jewelry vendors as well as educational speakers on Israel.
Bulls for Israel, a student-led campus organization, handed out pamphlets, flags, cultural artifacts and books. While not affiliated with USF Hillel, Gift of Life — a bone marrow registry dedicated to curing immune disorders and blood cancer — was also present to take oral swabs from willing students.
For Sophie Roth-Knigin, a former USF Hillel leadership fellow and junior public health major, the Jewish Life Festival felt like a way to bring the USF community together to celebrate Jewish culture and heritage. Regardless of identification, she said she views USF Hillel as a resource for people to learn about Judaism and how to best support Jewish communities.
“I personally wasn’t raised as particularly Jewish, but I’ve always identified as Jewish. And so coming to college, Jewish culture was something I was very excited to get involved in as a way to explore my heritage a little bit further,” she said.
“What Hillel does a great job at facilitating is finding out what Judaism means to each person individually, because we all don’t have a universal experience with our religions and our culture. It allows us to figure out what the journey is and what that path is for each of us.”
Jennifer Lukowski, a senior physical education major, accompanied her Jewish roommates to the celebration. Lukowski said she’s attended various cultural events with them, learning more about Jewish traditions and norms than she thought possible.
“I just wanted to learn more about Judaism. I mean, I learned stuff in school, but I never had anyone that I knew that was Jewish,” she said. “So I’ve learned a lot about their prayers and stuff that they do and while they do it, I don’t feel excluded at all. I just kind of say my own prayer and kind of reciprocate what they’re doing.”
Activities concluded with two contests, an ice cream eating challenge and a frozen T-shirt battle. Sara Ingber, president of the Suncoasts’ Hillel Board, said seeing students laugh and create memories with one another is the vision of Hillel, especially in light of a recent wave in antisemitism across the country.
“Antisemitism is always sort of something that we’re cognizant of and aware of,” she said. “We always sort of keep it on the back burner as much as possible because we’re not victims, we’re not teaching our students to be victims.
“We want to give them the skills, the self awareness and self confidence to go out when they’re faced with something yucky like this, and be able to stand up to it. To not get overly excited or emotional, but to deal rationally and hopefully change some hearts and minds. That’s sort of what today was all about.”
Looking ahead, Feinsmith said she is hopeful the event will continue on a larger scale, such as integrating it with USF Hillel’s annual Hanukkah party and expanding participation to more Jewish organizations on campus.
As awareness of Jewish culture and community continues to increase on campus, she said she hopes more students will feel welcome to participate in USF Hillel’s events and visit the center, even if they are not Jewish.
“We may be a Jewish student center but we don’t exist just to serve our own people,” she said. “Personally and professionally, I believe that a healthy Jewish community is dependent on an overall healthy community.
“There’s absolutely no reason why we wouldn’t serve non-Jewish students. Mind you, we don’t proselytize as that is against Jewish religion. We don’t convert people or encourage people to convert. If I can create a safe space for a student, be they Jewish or not, it’s my honor.”