About two months ago my family and I visited Whitman College in Walla Walla. We arrived Friday afternoon and headed to the student union to buy challah from Challah For Hunger (which we wrote about in April) before our tour. Later, we joined about 30 students in the “spiritual activities room” for the Fridays at Five Shabbat gathering of the Shalom Hillel group.
Sharon Kaufman-Osborn, from the college’s counseling staff, is the group’s long-time faculty adviser. She and her husband, Tim Kaufman-Osborn (“we’re known as SKO and TKO,” she says), moved to Walla Walla in the late 1970s when he began teaching political theory at Whitman. They planned to stay only a few years, but gradually fell in love with the place, staying and raising their sons Jacob and Tobin there.
Initially Sharon, who has an MSW from the University of Wisconsin, worked part-time at the college. There was little Jewish activity on campus and the local Congregation Beth Israel (one of the state’s oldest) had a small, mostly elderly population.
“We really didn’t do much for a while,” she says.
In 1992, some students approached her about starting an official Jewish group. Despite not having a strong Jewish education she says, “I’m a great organizer…and I felt strongly there should be something there.”
The group was originally called “Shalom,” but in 2001 they affiliated with the national organization Hillel, combining names.
Today there are over 120 students on the Hillel listserve. The admissions office estimates the student body at about 8 percent Jewish with Jewish student enrollment increasing. This year’s entering class had 35 Jewish students. Sharon says more students now come from California and areas with larger Jewish populations.
Some students do become active at Beth Israel, too, where monthly services are held. Jacob Kaufman-Osborn’s Bar Mitzvah in 2001 was the first there in 10 years and the next one after that was his brother’s three years later.
In addition to Fridays at Five, Shalom Hillel hosts a Passover seder, and the school’s coordinator of religious and spiritual life hosts an annual Shabbat dinner.
“One of the things we do every year,” Sharon adds, “is to bring a Holocaust survivor to Whitman.” It is a very popular event and one that as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, “I am deeply committed to.”
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Our readers are most likely familiar with the Bronfman Foundation’s Birthright Israel trips for young people. The foundation also sponsors the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, bringing 26 high school students to Israel for six weeks the summer before their senior year, all expenses paid. The fellows — American kids from wide ranging Jewish backgrounds, Orthodox to agnostic — are joined for part of the time by 26 Israeli students.
Seattleite Anya Tudisco went this year, attracted by the opportunity to explore Jewish diversity.
“I couldn’t be a true Jewish leader or representative of the Jewish people without having ventured beyond Reform Judaism or Reform Jews,” wrote the Roosevelt High School senior in a recent paper assigned by the program.
“Bronfmanim” as they are known, continue to meet, read and reflect on their experiences during the year following the program.
“You have to be willing to read, write, think and talk,” says Anya.
In Israel, the Temple Beth Am youth group president says she had to form opinions “pretty quickly” regarding things she hadn’t known much about, noting that she knew less than her peers about Israel, traditional Judaism and “even just current events.”
As a public school student, Anya feels she brought a different perspective to the group. Most Bronfman fellows attend Jewish schools or private schools in major Jewish population centers.
“I sometimes stepped into discussions to bring attention to an issue or opinion that came from outside the Jewish community,” she says. “I felt it important to bring my experience with the secular world.”
Like other seniors, right now Anya is busy with college applications and preparing for a number of jazz performances — she plays sax and clarinet in her school’s award-winning jazz band. In December she’ll fly to New York for a working meeting with this year’s American and Israeli BYFI participants — and she’s of course excited to see her friends.
“I never would have found my way to these lifelong friends without this program. These friends are now my teachers,” she says. “BYFI is in every way a priceless experience.”