By Shana Medel
[Second of a four-part series on the most unusual clubs at Hillel]
Isabella Gutierrez giggles as she kneads challah alongside nine other students. Its doughy texture reminds her of Play-Doh.
As they create a three-stranded braid, Gutierrez and her friends keep their eyes on the baking instructors at University of Southern California Hillel. It’s their first time making challah.
Challah baking – that’s a page out of every Hillel playbook. But Gutierrez and her friends aren’t college aged or Jewish.
They’re Girl Scouts.
Today, in the USC Hillel kitchen, 11-year-old Gutierrez and her fellow scouts are earning their baking badges. They represent Girl Scout Troop 02045, an initiative of USC Hillel.
There are more than 550 Hillels around the world, but USC Hillel is the only affiliate with a registered Girl Scout Troop of its own.
Rachel Kartin, a recent USC graduate and former Hillel student leader, said the troop is dedicated to fulfilling the Girl Scout mission – building girls of courage, confidence and character.
“They’re gaining the courage to know what’s right and do it, the confidence to speak up for themselves and the character to recognize a wrong in the world and know they can fix it,” Kartin, 22, said.
Reminiscing about weekends camping and selling Thin Mints turned into serious discussions about forming a troop affiliated with USC Hillel. But how to find participants?
The answer was just down the street.
“We saw these young students every day, but we had no interaction with them,” Walker said. “We started thinking, ‘They’re a part of our community. Why not start there?’”
A mere four-minute walk from USC Hillel is the 32nd Street School/USC Magnet Center, home to more than 1,000 kindergarten through twelfth graders. Minority students comprise 95.3% of the school’s attendees, and approximately 91% of the student body receives free or reduce-pricedlunches, according to Niche.
Although USC is one of California’s wealthiest universities, it’s located in one of the poorest areas in the state.
Walker visited a handful of classrooms to promote the troop in January 2018, and one month later, Troop 02045 registered with Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles and became a USC student organization.
The scouts mostly come from low-income and minority households in Los Angeles.
“A core component of Judaism is community, and our troop helps us connect two very different communities to one another,” Walker said. “We’ve been able to create a warm space where we celebrate each other’s successes, comfort one another when needed, and most importantly, learn from one another.”
Every Monday, Hillel students accompany the scouts on their walk from 32nd Street School to USC Hillel, where they participate in a 90-minute meet. They burn off their energy with an outdoor game before munching on a healthy snack and engaging in activities that will earn them another badge.
Because many of the girls come from Spanish-speaking households, the troop relies on Cassidy Wechsler, a Hispanic-Jewish student at USC and troop advisor, to liaise with parents about logistics, paperwork and other Girl Scout matters.
“Our scouts are all racial minorities,” said Wechsler, who is of Argentinian descent. “It’s crucial for these girls to see themselves reflected in their role models.”
Some may see themselves growing up to be like Wechsler, 20, herself a former Girl Scout. She holds leadership positions in USC’s student government and sits on Hillel International’s Student Cabinet.
“There are everyday obstacles that can hinder these girls from reaching their full potential,” said Wechsler, an entrepreneurship and innovation major. “And it’s one of the reasons why many of our programs spotlight female role models who can empower and inspire these girls. We want our scouts to come away saying, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’”
One of those programs focused on civic duty, allowing the girls to earn their inside government badge. Wechsler coordinated a tour of the student government office at USC and a meeting with its female student body president, who explained the election process and her responsibility to constituents.
“They learned that all of us have a stake in our community – no matter how old we are,” she said.
The diversity of programs organized by Wechsler and her fellow troop leaders empower the scouts. A yoga session emphasized body positivity. A parfait-making class focused on healthy eating. A gardening activity highlighted environmental conservation.
The girls also enhanced their financial literacy and interpersonal skills by selling $1,300 worth of cookies. The proceeds will help them create fleece-tied blankets for animals in shelters and enjoy a weekend adventure at Camp Alonim, a Jewish camp an hour’s drive from campus.
Delfi Gutierrez, mother of Isabella Gutierrez, said the USC Hillel students have served as role models to her daughter. It made her proud to see Isabella take initiative and try to sell boxes of cookies to passersby in the community, she added.
“That was her first time selling cookies,” Delfi Gutierrez said. “I got to see her grow.”
Although the troop breaks for the summer, Emily Castro, 11, is already eager to come back. An animal-lover, Castro is looking forward to making fleece-tied blankets for dogs in animal shelters and participating in a scout field trip to the nearby American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“I like connecting with my friends and helping others,” Castro said. “It’s the best troop.”
Isabella Gutierrez is already dreaming about attending USC after she graduates from high school. Maybe she’ll study biology, English or history, she said.
In the meantime, she’ll continue honing her skills as a Girl Scout from the USC Hillel students, who she sees as big sisters.
“I like being part of the community,” she said. “To me, being a Girl Scout is about being strong, respectful, kind and confident in myself.”
Shana Medel is a communications associate at Hillel International.