How Jewish Life Thrives in San Francisco

This isn’t a letter from SF Hillel or from JIMENA. It’s really from the young adults of San Francisco. It’s about the future of Jewish life in San Francisco, and across America.

Here’s what that future looks like: it’s different. And it’s beautiful.

But it’s different.

First, Jewish life succeeds when institutions are less silo’d and truly collaborate. This letter was inspired by the recognition of the recent successes that have come from SF Hillel and JIMENA partnering together.

JIMENA and San Francisco Hillel have co-produced over 50 events over many years – events that embrace Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage.

At the University of San Francisco, Hillel, the Jewish Student Organization at USF and JIMENA are hosting a series of events for Mizrahi Remembrance Month, which included a kick-off Henna party and a Mizrahi Shabbat.

Celebrations like these help our existing students and communities recognize the diversity of the Jewish people, the plight of Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, and the important role of Israel as a multi-ethnic, safe haven for Jews from all parts of the world.

But it also opens up our community to Jews who never previously felt they were fully part of the prevailing organized Jewish institutions. And that’s the real success – empowering students like Johanna, a Jew of Tunisian and Algerian descent, to become part of the Hillel family and help her share her beautiful and unique Jewish culture with others.

Because we worked together, SF Hillel and JIMENA have enlarged each of our communities and furthered both of our missions.

Second, we need to thoughtfully consider how we present ourselves.

Those of us who grew up on grandma’s chopped liver, kugel and kneidlach might be surprised at the students and young adults who identify as Jewish today. They come from incredibly diverse backgrounds, have had different upbringings, and use words to describe their identities that did not even exist in the past. 

It goes without saying that all flavors of Judaism need to be welcomed into our institutions. But we need to go beyond just welcoming them to our culture, and start embedding and integrating our diverse Jewish traditions and experiences together. This can have an incredible impact.

A perfect example is the Mimouna celebration at the end of Passover, which JIMENA helped SF Hillel students launch in 2013, and is now a major campus-wide event celebrated together by Jewish and Muslim students, along with the broader campus community (the University President has attended the past two years).

This has helped facilitate cultural engagement, dialogue, and relationship-building among different campus groups, and has also challenged both Jewish and non-Jewish students to reconsider their pre-conceived ideas of what it means to be Jewish on campus.

In short, the Jewish community looks brighter, more vibrant, and more long-lasting when we are inclusive, pluralistic, and true partners together.

And let’s face it, gefilte fish and schmaltz herring also go down better with some baklava and Turkish coffee.

Sarah Levin
Executive Director

Ollie Benn
Executive Director
San Francisco Hillel

Categories: Community


November 20, 2015


Ollie Benn