The first time I walked into Hillel was August 2005, my first year at UCF. Being brand new, I wasn’t really sure what opportunities awaited me on campus. I walked into the three-bedroom apartment on the south side of Pegasus Landing (now Knights Circle) and was welcomed with open arms by Sam Kaufmann, the Program Director at the time. Sam introduced me to a few students, told me a little about Hillel, and I went on my way. Over the next few years I attended programs, gradually becoming more involved with the organization. During my third year at UCF, Hillel made a change that I will never forget. UCF Hillel moved into it’s own building known as “The Vault”, a former bank building located on the corner of University and Alafaya. Having a space to call their own was transformative for the organization that I now knew and loved.
We started hosting Shabbat dinners every week, bagel brunches once a month, as well as a slew of other events over the course of the year. As our Hillel grew, so did the number of staff we were able to employ. I remember when we hired Rabbi Jonathan Siger to be our Executive Director, Bennie Cohen as the Director of Student Life, Lauren Friedman as a Program Associate, and Jenna Mitzner as our JCSC Fellow. Together, this staff worked countless hours in partnership with our student board to grow our Hillel on all fronts. They filled Birthright buses, developed the student board, and gave us the tools to hold multiple programs per week on a regular basis. This was also right around the time the Northview Project began to take shape.
Throughout my final year at UCF, plans for Northview started to surface which included apartments that would house over 600 students, the Catholic Campus Ministry, and 20,000 square feet of space designated to be the home of Central Florida Hillel. Over the next several years the project was developed and, in the Fall of 2013, opened it’s doors.
I was blown away the first time I took a tour of the new Hillel facility. It has everything! The upstairs includes a state of the art movie theatre, multiple study areas, a massive great room complete with multiple televisions and couches for students to hang out, as well as meat and dairy kitchens. The downstairs space is made up of a conference room and grand ballroom for hosting weekly Shabbat celebrations and holiday services.
Since joining the Board of Directors in 2015, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand the remarkable things Central Florida Hillel is doing. The staff has more than doubled since I was a student. They hold multiple programs per week including Shabbat and Hump Day Nosh, both of which are seeing record turnout and continued growth as time goes on. For Passover, Hillel hosted half a dozen Seders at four different Universities across Central Florida. The Central Florida Hillel leadership worked tirelessly with other Jewish leaders in the area to make sure kosher food can be found on campus regularly.
Seeing how much Central Florida Hillel has changed over the past 12 years has me truly amazed! The work that Aaron Weil, Hillel’s Executive Director, and his staff are doing daily to enrich the lives of the 6,000 plus students at UCF and beyond is truly outstanding and I am looking forward to seeing all of the great things to come.