Hillel’s new director talks fall semester plans


Students mingle in the lobby of The Hillel Cohn Center before the annual Erev Rosh Hashana service on Sunday Sept. 13, 2015.

Kelly Powell

Harvey Sass wants to make Kent State students his first priority.

Sass, who made the move from New Jersey to Ohio 10 years ago, was appointed Kent State Hillel’s new interim executive director in August.  

Sass was raised in a Jewish home and has always been involved in the “community aspects” of Judaism since he was young.

With a new semester in front of him, Sass is looking to orchestrate programs students can enjoy while simultaneously giving them a big hand in the decision-making.

Q: First things first: how did you initially become involved in Hillel?


A: I connected with Hillel and Kent State through some work I was doing on the community side. Our funding is comprised of community support, and that’s how I became aware of the position and how they became aware of me.


Q: So how would you describe your position to someone who isn’t involved in Hillel?


A: My position is about facilitating a center for Jewish life on campus. Our staff people are involved in programming, student engagement, meal preparation, and taking care of the building so that we’re open and available for students. I help sort of foster and organize all of that. Our goal is to make this a welcoming place for students and to have programming that’s engaging in a variety of ways.


Q: Was it the student aspect that interested you in the position?


A: Yes, absolutely. I was very motivated to be able to work with the student population. I think college years are an interesting time for students to explore their identity and explore a variety of paths: a career path, a spiritual path and an emotional path. I think that we potentially have a lot to offer. I’m very excited about being involved and helping students along their journey. We like to say our role is to meet students where they are and hopefully take a few steps along with them.


Q: And what do you feel you are best equipped to do for Hillel?


A: For me personally, it’s really about helping people grow. Helping the students grow, in terms of their identity or their knowledge, and helping our staff grow as well in their skills and their job satisfaction. Hopefully we’re doing it in a thought-provoking way and also in a fun way. We want this to be an enjoyable environment for our staff to work and also an enjoyable environment for students to spend time with us.


Q: How then would you summarize Hillel’s environment, organization and opportunities?


A: We like to offer a variety of experiences whether it’s leadership opportunities for students or advocacy opportunities for students. We are involved with Birthright with provides free trips to Israel for Jewish students here at our campus as well as across the country. (We orchestrate) celebration of holidays for both Jewish students as well as the campus community in general. We are very much interested in engaging with the general community in terms of celebrating the values that Judaism brings to the general population. We love to support students the best way we can.


Q: What can you tell me about the trips to Israel?


A: It’s a nationwide program called Birthright. Registration is open; we are actively talking to students and helping recruit them. We’ve had quite a number of students go on the trips. It’s been a wonderful experience for all of them, hopefully developing a lasting connection with Israel and with the people there. They are generally a week to 10 days.


Q: And what does a typical Friday night event look like?


A: A typical Friday night: Students start gathering around 5:30 p.m., we have a Shabbat service right after and then dinner is usually around 7 p.m.


Q: So what is unique about college ministry as opposed to traditional all-ages ministry?


A: I think just being focused on college students is really positive for us in that it makes it easy for us to understand what our purpose is. We don’t have a lot of masters to serve; we’re here for the students. I think it also gives us more freedom to meet students in a variety of ways and to meet their needs in a variety of ways. A lot of organizations kind of have more structure and a more narrowly defined mission, but we’re here to engage a wide spectrum of students with a wide spectrum of interests. That gives us a lot of leeway in how we design the programming.


Q: What plans do you have for Hillel this semester?


A: We’re just now working on both filling out our calendar and determining the programs that will be offered. We’re a student organization, so we like to have a lot of our programming be student-driven. We’ve got a number of students working on that right now.


Q: How would you define your mission for this year?


A: Our mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish students on campus and also to engage the general campus community in terms of awareness and celebration in things relating to Judaism. We want to be the center of Jewish life on campus. The thing that we most want do is engage students, and that is purposefully a very broad term. Whether it’s providing service opportunities, providing opportunities for holiday celebration, providing opportunities for strictly social interactions, providing opportunities for learning, we’ll do it.


Kelly Powell is the religion reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].