Kol Hillel Rio: Do We Define Ourselves by Our Beliefs or by Our Actions?

We are all Israelis, we think like Israelis and sometimes are prisoners to Israeli ethos.

by Boyanna Grubeshich

“As an Israeli, I don’t feel a special need to be part of a community. The whole State of Israel is my community! In Rio, I was exposed to something different – the community is what supports you as an individual. The community is what gives you strength and what allows you to grow. The community in Rio De Janeiro is amazing and unified, very warm and caring. They embraced me and treated me like I was one of their daughters. And that is exactly the point; being Jewish makes me one of them”, says Hila Esther Lior, an Israeli student for Government and Diplomacy at IDC Herzliya, as she returns from the Kol Hillel delegation in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Her peer Shelly Dilian, a law and government student at IDC and a member of Kol Hillel adds, “A valuable insight which I gained from this experience and will take with me moving forward is that our strength lies in our unity as a people, and that unity should be based on endowing pluralism and love for our fellow being.”

The Kol Hillel program began in 2009 from a true partnership of professional staff from Hillel at Baruch College in New York City, IDC Hillel in Herzliya, Israel, and Kiev Hillel in Ukraine. The project aims to connect Jewish students from around the world to their shared history and collective future. Since then, Kol Hillel student members visited Jewish communities in these respective countries, and Hillel Rio in Brazil was added to the gatherings this year with the aim of further exploring a deep understanding of personally meaningful and deeply relevant connections to Global Jewish Peoplehood.

Throughout the year, the participating students in all four participating Hillels go through local and international web-based study sessions which allow them to experience meaningful and relevant discussions. In addition, once a year, all groups gather and spend a week together, deepening their relationships and dialogue. Last week, Hillel Rio hosted the Kol Hillel 2014 delegation comprised of 30 students from Israel, New York, Ukraine and Rio. The week-long journey included a series of conversations and experiences that gave the participants an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the Jewish community in Rio, explore their sense of belonging to the Jewish People and form long lasting relationships with each other.

“In Israel, the Kol Hillel project is a type of breath of intellectual fresh air. For me, it’s the place where philosophy and Jewish texts allow me to connect, to feel and to delve deep into the most burning matters of the day. With this, despite the diversity of the amazing people who participate in this project at IDC, we are all Israelis, we think like Israelis and sometimes are prisoners to Israeli ethos … hence the experience in Rio and meeting with diverse Jewish communities was fascinating for me and opened new horizons of thought which I did not know existed. As members of the largest Jewish community in the world, we Israelis are less aware of them. I feel that the delegation expanded my horizons and opened a gateway to understanding the importance of Jews in the Diaspora,” said Hila as she continues to reflect on this experience.

During their time in Rio, and in order to get to know the local Jewish community, participants engaged in conversation and volunteer work with community members, schools, the Federation, synagogues, members of the community center and of course – students engaged with Hillel Rio.

One of the evenings included a meeting with Jewish citizens of Rio who emigrated from Islamic countries. Along with their fascinating stories, the question of why they chose to move to Brazil. “The most inspirational moment for me was praying in an orthodox synagogue and finding a Syrian Siddur in the middle of Rio! I was able to connect to my home and family and it was a very memorable moment,” said Abe Saff, from Baruch College in NYC.

Volunteering at “Lar da Esperanca – Home of Hope,” which provides the needy with social services, and in Favela with youth at risk gave the participants a better sense of the great social need in Rio and an opportunity to discuss the mission of “Tikun Olam” in Rio and in their own communities.

Rosie Purr, a Business student at IDC Raphael Recanati International School reflected: “Together we have power – and the power starts with the individual’s actions. This delegation has inspired me to take matters more into my hands – both in my close community and outside of it.”

A fundamental part of the journey to Rio was tackling the central questions of Kol Hillel: What does it mean to be Jewish? Do we define ourselves by our beliefs or by our actions? Are we Jews because we believe in G-d and abide by Jewish law or because we are part of Jewish tradition and we do volunteer work? How do we fit in to our community? What if we don’t? And what is our mutual responsibility to society?

Igor Krashenyi from Hillel Kiev in Ukraine says “Kol Hillel showed all of us that international dialogue helps in finding a new level of Jewish self-recognition.” And Shelly concludes, “The journey for me was valuable and very emotional. It stimulated within me a sense of mission and responsibility and a desire to preserve the strong ties we’ve created during our few days together and to promote joint projects with one another, across the globe. The things we experienced together created true friendships and I feel a much stronger connection to the greater Jewish community.”

Kol Hillel is supported by the UJA Federation of New York and P2G of The Jewish Agency for Israel.

Boyanna Grubeshich is Director of Hillel at IDC Herzliya. She is a former Israel Fellow at Hillel at Baruch College and one of the creators of Kol Hillel.