Earlier this year, Hillel of San Diego, which oversees programming for nearly 2,000 Jewish college students at SDSU, UC San Diego, CSU San Marcos and the University of San Diego, welcomed Karen Parry to a be the organization’s new Executive Director.
A San Diego native, Parry attended UCSD for her undergraduate studies before heading to New York University to complete her Master’s. Prior to accepting the position with Hillel of SD, she was the Development Director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. Her latest position brought her back to San Diego, where she previously worked for both Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, and the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.
During a virtual meet and greet event during Sukkot earlier this year (her second day in this new role), she spoke to community members and stakeholders.
“The holiday of Sukkot lends itself to a discussion about hospitality and gathering,” she said. “At Hillel, we strive to practice radical hospitality. I like to think about the story of Avraham and how the Torah goes into specific detail about how he greets and cares for his guests. He rushed to greet his visitors. He made sure that they were comfortable and satiated. And then he walked them out, away from his tent, to make sure that they found their way. The Torah doesn’t waste words. It provides all these details because they matter. Creating a welcoming environment is about attention to details, with the most important detail being how comfortable your guest feels.
“Here at Hillel, we are all about the power of these moments to shape and fortify the Jewish identities of the next generation. We know that if a student has a meaningful experience at a Hillel event, it could change the trajectory of their Jewish life. It’s something we hold sacred. Holy work.”
L’CHAIM Magazine spoke with Parry about what it’s like to come “home,” and her vision for the future at Hillel of San Diego.
L’CHAIM Magazine: Welcome home! What is it like to be back in San Diego and working with Hillel?
Karen Parry: The Hillel staff is remarkable. One of the biggest reasons I took this job was because I knew I’d be working with such talented and passionate Jewish professionals.
My Jewishness definitely informed how I treated people, how I viewed the world as a place that I needed to help repair, and how I knew I could find community anywhere because I was a part of this tribe.
During my undergraduate studies at UCSD, Hillel instantly felt like home. Hillel made me feel like being Jewish and doing Jewish was safe and fun, and that I was connected to something bigger. It really served as an anchor for me when I was trying to figure out who I was.
L’CHAIM: How will the ongoing COVID-19 crisis impact how Hillel operates this school year, especially with so many students studying from their own homes?
KP: In such an unprecedented time, students are craving social connection. They are hungry for it. We have and will continue to work on shifting programming in order to accommodate our students during this time.
One really interesting outcome of this situation has been the development of quaranteams, which are small groups of students that have been built to connect students to new friends who share their same interests. Watching the formation of these groups has really been amazing and rewarding; because it shows that we can overcome any obstacles together, as one Jewish community.
It’s also all about relationships. Hillel staff is still meeting one on one with students to support their Jewish journey and give them what they need during this time when it is easy to feel isolated.
Eventually, we will be back to hosting in-person events to bring our students together, but we will not do so until it is safe and until we can guarantee that no one is at risk.
L’CHAIM: What role do you see Hillel playing in the future of Jewish student’s lives?
KP: One of the main purposes of Hillel is to inspire students to be ethically engaged global citizens who use their Jewish values to improve the world. If we are to connect effectively with students now, we have to acknowledge that there is injustice and inequality happening in the world around them and our Jewish community and our Jewish students can be a force for good.
We can do this a lot of ways. One of the best ways to do this is to allow students to deeply immerse in Jewish learning that awakens the spirit of tikkun olam. And also, Students need to feel their values in action by actually doing the work with their hands. It’s a big reason why we offer alternative spring breaks. And now in the time of Covid, a big way to do tikkun olam is through partnerships with local organizations like JFS. The more we can collaborate and work together, the better. Let’s give our students the opportunity to flex their Jewish values in real time to help solve real problems and let’s have them do it with Hillel supporting that growth.
Hillel is literally impacting the strength of Jewish life today but also far into the future. What we do has a ripple effect. Each student who connects to Jewish life and to another Jewish friend is more likely to continue to participate in Jewish community as an adult and stake in the future of Israel.
To learn more about the work of Hillel of San Diego, visit www.hillelsd.org.