The most common Jewish ritual

What is the most common Jewish ritual?

It just may be attending college.

I just had a nice chat with Leebie Mallin, the new executive director of “Hillels of Westchester.”: She pointed out that about 85 percent of American Jews receive at least some higher education, making college “the most common Jewish ritual.”

That’s where Hillel comes in.

Hillel is the largest Jewish college group, present on campuses around the world. The Westchester “chapter” used to cover just SUNY Purchase and Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, but has recently added Manhattanville College and the Pace University campus in Pleasantville.

16.jpgMallin, 31, (that’s her) comes to Westchester from the College of Staten Island, where she ran a fledging Hillel program (“There was literally one involved student when I got there.”) for the last three years.

A Philadelphia native who now lives in Riverdale, Mallin, as you would expect, is a big believer in Jewish education and connectedness.

“I believe that all Jews should have the opportunity to learn about their religion, culture and heritage,” she told me. “Then they can make decisions about their lives and embark on their own Jewish journeys. I see Hillel playing a role.”

So Hillel has a lot of responsibility, particularly when it comes to Jewish students without much Jewish knowledge or background.

“We have some students who have little or no knowledge of Judaism,” she said. “For many students, Hillel is their first encounter — or first positive encounter — with Judaism. College is a time for learning and discovery. Hillel is a way for students to challenge themselves and learn something about themselves.”

Hillels of Westchester is growing. It now has three staff people and offers weekly Shabbat services and full High Holy Day services.

Mallin figures there are some 1,300 Jewish students at the four campuses that Hillel serves. Many of them are studying or pursuing the arts, so Hillel hopes to reach out to all the artsy students out there.

The goal, she said, is to help Jewish students have “meaningful Jewish experiences.”

“The students have to define that for themselves,” she told me.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.