When Silverstein Base Hillel launched last summer, the program's goals were: 1) Bring an innovative model for engaging urban Jewish students and young adults to Chicago and 2) Get it off the ground.
One semester into the academic year, JUF's Metro Chicago Hillel's trailblazing project has already blown past engagement goals, helped Metro Chicago Hillel win an award from Hillel International, and most importantly, forged powerful relationships with young Jews throughout Chicago.
"It's game-changing," said Lisa Jericho, Metro Chicago Hillel board chair. "To see such successes early on is outstanding. We're very excited by what's possible."
Silverstein Base Hillel is a Lincoln Park home that welcomes young adults into a diverse, warm and hospitable Jewish family. The home-and it is truly the full-time home of the rabbinic couple that lives there, Rabbi Megan GoldMarche and her wife, Paige-brings Jewish students from campuses across Chicago into a cozy, welcoming, pluralistic space created specifically to meet the needs of underserved, often unaffiliated urban young adults.
"Our goal is really to give students a sense of home," Rabbi Megan said. "We want to provide adult mentors and a group of peers to help students feel less of that social isolation that can be part of the urban commuter experience. And of course, we also want to enhance their Jewish life, and help them build a Jewish community-which we do through programming focused around the pillars of hospitality, service and learning."
Clearly, this approach is working. In one semester, more than 400 unique guests have already walked through Silverstein Base Hillel's doors, with six area campuses represented at the very first welcome event-and those numbers don't tell the story of the many repeat visitors who say they already feel like part of a family.
"You automatically feel comfortable," said Ellen Geis, a third-year student at DePaul. "I love coming to Base because it's just Jewish. We're Jewish because we're helping people, or having a conversation about something that matters… I don't feel like I really connected with my Judaism until I met Megan and Paige."
"There was this one moment I remember, I was having a really hard week and work was stressing me out," recalled Aimee Casden, 22, a senior at Columbia College of Chicago. "I was trying to make it to a Shabbat dinner at Base but I got on the wrong train and had to turn around. I didn't think I would make it, but I did. When I arrived, I was greeted with big hugs. I felt like I belonged there, and that they were really happy to see me. It was a really nice feeling."
"I think the big thing about Base is it's not a campus," added Andrew Tamarkin, 19, a Loyola junior. "You get a nice community outside of your campus. It also feels a little freer than a college campus. You make a relationship with the rabbi."
Post-college adults say Silverstein Base Hillel has filled an important void for them, too, and that they are glad to have one more option on the increasingly dynamic menu of offerings for young Jews in Chicago.
"Hillel was always something that I cherished throughout and beyond college," said Natalie Mogul, 22. "Regardless of age, everyone is happy to be at Base and grateful to have somewhere to build a Jewish community in this large city. Just because I have graduated does not mean that my time at Hillel is done."
"I think my favorite experience was the first young professional Shabbat dinner I went to," added Katherine Linzer, 30. "It was just a single table that unified everyone. It was a little different than other dinners I've been to... It felt like being with family. [Rabbi Megan and Paige] have done a really nice job bringing different groups of people together."
"We've found that it helps to see young adults as holistic people," Rabbi Megan explained. "Ultimately, we're here to support people through the broad stage of life after high school, but before getting married or starting a family. We don't want to serve students but then drop them the second they graduate. When you take care of someone, it's not about their age."
Administered by JUF's Metro Chicago Hillel, which serves thousands of Jewish students on campuses throughout the Chicago area, Silverstein Base Hillel represents a true community partnership. Donors Bill, Ted, and Tom Silverstein selected and generously purchased the real estate for the house, and various community funders such as the Crown Family, an anonymous donor, and JUF's Breakthrough Fund have also provided backing. Joshua Rinkov, Metro Chicago Hillel's immediate past chair, and other community members were also a major force behind launching the project.
"When JUF approached us, we knew immediately that this was a project we wanted to support," said Ted Silverstein. "Watching the staff turn a promising concept into an impactful and functioning program has been amazing and gratifying. I think my brothers and I all agree it may be the best investment that we have ever made."
In part due to Silverstein Base Hillel's success, Metro Chicago Hillel recently received the Phillip H. and Susan Rudd Cohen Outstanding Campus Award from Hillel International. The highest honor given to an individual Hillel, the award recognizes Metro Chicago Hillel's success in adopting new ways of connecting with students.
Together the GoldMarches have years of experience on campus. Rabbi Megan has worked at the Hillel at Yale University and served as the Senior Jewish Educator at Columbia/Barnard Hillel. Paige served as director of Student Activities at Harvard Hillel. In addition to her work at Silverstein Base Hillel, Paige is assistant director at the Newberger Hillel at the University of Chicago.
"People keep asking how it's going," said Paige. "It's fun! It's fun having people in our home. It feels special. We're creating a home, where people feel comfortable. It's wonderful."For more information, visit www.metrochicagohillel.org/base/.