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Illini Hillel Centennial Blog #4: Q/A With Illini Hillel Alumni Joe Winner and Felicia Tracthenberg

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

By Ezra Shelato

Left: Joe Winner, Class of 2015 | Right: Felicia Tracthenberg (front row second from the left) Class of 2000 with her family

Joe Winner, Class of 2015 Felicia Tracthenberg, Class of 2000, pictured in the front row,

second from the left, along with her family.

Editors note: This alumni Q/A was conducted through our Share Your Story Survey.

This week’s Hillel Centennial blog post features insights from two different alumni about their time at Illini Hillel:

Joe Winner (JW) graduated from the University of Illinois in 2015.

Felicia Tracthenberg (FT) graduated from the University of Illinois in 2000.

Q: What is your favorite memory from your time at Hillel?

JW: In 2014, a few friends planned an alternative spring break through Illini Hillel where we focused on supporting Champaign and surrounding communities. Not only was it a great time, but the work we did (tornado relief, volunteering in schools, and more) was very meaningful. During the week, we helped clear debris from a house that had been badly damaged by a tornado in Washington, IL. 4 years later Erez and I visited the area and found the new house built on the land that we cleared. Overall, it was an experience I will always take with me.

FT: I don't have one favorite memory, but what I remember most is simply playing bridge at Hillel every Shabbat evening until late at night. Every year we taught more people and our group kept expanding.

Q: What is one word you would use to describe your Hillel experience?

JW: Community

FT: Community

Q: What is one thing you’ve kept with you from your experience at Illini Hillel?

JW: I feel very lucky to have built such a strong relationship with Erez. We met when he was the Israel Fellow at Illini Hillel. When he came back as Executive Director he really invested in being a mentor to me and helping me improve as a person and a professional. Erez's mentorship is probably the best thing I took away from my time at Hillel.

FT: I think of U of I Hillel every year at Purim, remembering our Purim spiels (I still remember quite a lot of the lyrics!) and how the families in the area had a tradition of giving Mishloach Manot to everyone present at Megillah reading. We've continued to do that (albeit modified to a larger Jewish community), making ~100 containers of Mishloach Manot to give away. Our signature look is to put the Mishloach Manot in a paper plate stapled into a hamantaschen shape, which I copied from a friend at U of I Hillel. Our kids have grown up helping with this tradition their entire life.

Q: What does Hillel mean to you?

JW: It provided me with a home base in college, and I hope it can do that for many, many more generations of students.

FT: It was my home away from home for 5 years, and it was so hard to leave when I graduated. I knew that I would never again have a community quite like that.

Q: How has Illini Hillel impacted you?

JW: Being involved with Illini Hillel was one of the first times in my life where I felt like I really was in control of what I wanted my Jewish life to look like. Whenever my friends or I had ideas for events or things we wanted, Hillel staff always worked with a mindset of "how can we make this happen?" That empowerment was really special and I've tried to take it with me, and pass it on in my work as well.

FT: I have wonderful memories of that time in my life, especially all my friends at Hillel. While I have been terrible at keeping in touch (regrettably), I know that we all remember that time fondly. I'm especially proud of having finally convinced my roommate to come with me to Hillel a few months into the year. She met her future husband at that bagel brunch!

Q: What is something you would want to tell future generations about Hillel?

JW: Hillel is a space that fosters leadership opportunities for whatever type of Jewish adult you want to be. If you would like to take an active role in what you want your Jewish life to look like, both communally and personally, Hillel can help you do that.

FT: Every week when we had Shabbat lunch at someone's apartment, no matter how many friends came, there was always enough room and enough food, even when we were sure there wouldn't be. The U of I Hillel community had a place for everyone.

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