December 2016/January 2017ISRAELL'CHAIM

Jewish Life Thrives at SDSU’s Hillel



It has been a little over 2 years since the opening of the Melvin Garb Hillel Center at San Diego State University. The 10,500 square-foot, two-story, LEED Gold certified building is the first modern Hillel facility in San Diego, providing services to Jewish students across the county. As a hub for Jewish connection and programming, the Center celebrates the realization of a long-held dream to build a modern Hillel facility for SDSU.

“I am so happy to say that Hillel and Jewish life on campus is thriving throughout San Diego, said Jackie Tolley, Hillel’s Campus Director at SDSU.

The center is a space where Jewish college students can find their Jewish community, explore their Judaism and enhance their college experience. In development, Hillel hoped Jewish students would feel a sense of pride to have the beautiful center as a gathering spot for all their friends and that has definitely been the case. “We also love sharing the building with other campus organizations and the flow of students in and out has helped us achieve a new level of visibility and connection to the campus,” Tolley said.

However, opening the building was only the starting point for a new level of Jewish involvement at SDSU. Tolley and her staff continue to create new ways to reach the uninvolved and to deepen student’s Jewish connection and knowledge. They add new programs to their schedule as students express what they are seeking. They find new ways to give students an Israel experience that is meaningful to them. In addition, they hope to share the building with more community members who may be looking for a space to rent for their personal simchas.

“The first two and a half years of the Melvin Garb Hillel Center have been outstanding and I am excited to build on the great beginning and see where we go from here!” Tolley said.

Hillel at SDSU is just one branch of the program fostering Jewish life at college campuses across San Diego. With programming at nearly all area colleges, no Jewish student is left out.

Leah Baker, California State University San Marcos class of 2018, started coming to Hillel at the beginning of her college life three years ago. During that time, she says she has “made countless friendships and lots of beautiful memories with the Jewish community at San Marcos.”

“I was very shy at first, and wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was quickly and warmly welcomed by the close-knit group at Hillel that I continue to celebrate our amazing Jewish culture with,” Baker said. “I met some of my closest friends there, who broke me out of my shell and showed me how great it is to have a student organization that understands you and supports you through thick and thin.”

Through her involvement in Hillel, Baker has fostered her love for Israel and has been inspired to go on Birthright as well as study in Jerusalem and travel on her own there afterward.

For many students, the connections made at Hillel reignite a passion for Jewish life that might have dimmed after growing out of religious school programming. This was the case for University of California – San Diego undergraduate student Rachel Finerman.

“After losing the connection to my Jewish roots throughout high school, I knew I wanted to reconnect to that aspect of my life when I came to college,” she says. “Hillel has provided me with opportunities to grow as a Jewish person and as an emerging leader within the Jewish community. I can confidently say that UC San Diego Hillel has been the highlight of my college experience. Hillel is my resource on campus for support, friends, and unforgettable experiences.”

Recent CSUSM graduate Alex Ertel said that after returning from Birthright, he was both inspired and enthusiastic about connecting and becoming more involved with Jewish life in his community and on campus.

“I felt like a dormant portion of my Jewish identity had been awoken with all of the amazing experiences I shared in the land of Israel,” he says. “I started volunteering more on campus events and even went as far as hosting my first Shabbat dinner in my home with students at Hillel, but even with that I wanted more.”

Ertel participated in an alternative spring break that took students from Hillels in San Diego to volunteer on a coffee farm in Oaxaca, Mexico. In partnership with the Cadena, the Jewish Community of Mexico, and Project Ten (an Israeli organization), students participated in international aid program helping locals in the area with Jews from across the globe.

“I was immediately hooked to connecting further to the international Jewish community and my own back home through Hillel,” he says. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do after college and through mentorship of the Hillel Director at Cal State San Marcos, I participated in a life altering journey by becoming a JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellow through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and working with the Jewish Community of Warsaw, Poland. For an entire year, I participated in and became a part of Jewish life and renewal at the Jewish Community Center of Warsaw and even was a part of the opening of Hillel of Warsaw. I owe the development of my Jewish identity in college and the type of Jewish life that I live today to the experiences that I shared with Hillel and I am forever grateful.”

It is a sentiment that is echoed time and time again. Hillel of San Diego, accredited by Hillel International, serves Jewish undergraduate and graduate students at institutions of higher education across San Diego County. Students from all backgrounds are invited to participate in Jewish life on campus. Social, cultural, educational, and community service programs provide opportunities for students to build relationships with each other and develop Jewish community. Hillel’s mission is to be a vibrant Jewish campus presence and to involve the maximum number of university-age Jews in ways that foster a lasting commitment to Jewish life.


For more information about Hillel of San Diego and/or how to reserve a space for your meeting or party at The Melvin Garb Hillel Center, please contact Amy Hart, The Lori Bolotin Director of Development, Hillel of San Diego, at (619) 764-5995 or visit


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