By Ezra Shelato
Alison Siegel Lewin attended the University of Illinois from the Fall of 2001 to the Spring of 2005, and earned her Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Religion.
She is now the Executive Director of Temple Chai in Long Grove, Illinois and the Founder and Principal of Siegel Lewin Consulting, LLC which focuses on supporting nonprofit organizations with strategic planning and financial management
When did you start getting involved with Hillel?
I was most intensely involved my first two years, and then as it progressed, I stayed involved, but I switched to more of a focus on interfaith activities on campus. So [during junior and senior year] I was doing less directly at Hillel, and more on behalf of Hillel.
What kind of interfaith work were you doing?
9/11 happened just a week into my freshman year, and at the time there was a resurgence of violence in Israel, and there was a similar resurgence of antisemitic activity on college campuses in the US. I had gotten involved with Jewish-Arab dialogue groups. There was a big movement at the time focused on creating relationships and building common ground before delving into the more controversial topics.
What is your favorite memory from your time at Illini Hillel?
We were hosting a gala in honor of Alan Potash, the departing Executive Director, and we wanted to include a slideshow.
At the time, not only were smartphones not a thing, but not everybody had a digital camera. So we collected [physical] photos from people who were involved with Hillel over the past five years, and we had to digitize them all to make the slideshow for the gala. I still remember my now-husband, who I wasn’t even dating at the time; We were in his apartment with all of these photographs laid out on the bed. And he was certain that taking photos of the photographs with the digital camera would work, rather than going somewhere with a fancy scanner and scanning them all. And I still remember him hovering over them with the camera and trying to get me to stand in different places to block the light so there wouldn’t be a glare in the photo of the photo. And now I know that that’s totally his personality and it’s not surprising at all that he was doing it that way, but at the time it was new to me.
What is one word you would use to describe your Hillel experience?
“Supportive” comes to mind. I think my involvement with Hillel gave me a place from which to do things that felt serious and important, and to practice and build skills that I ended up using in my professional life years down the road, in terms of soft skills like leadership and negotiation.
What is one thing you’ve kept with you from your time/experience at Illini Hillel?
The network of relationships that I built while I was physically at Hillel or doing things on behalf of Hillel are relationships that I have carried with me into adulthood. And now we’re into the second generation, where my kids are good friends with the kids of the people I met through work I did at Hillel.
The institutions of Jewish life and the buildings that we gather in are important. But they’re not what it’s all about, and they’re not the priority. The relationships that are fostered and the opportunities that are created take advantage of the underlying institution and building and staff. And those are what’s important. It’s the relationships between the people in the community and the interpersonal connections that actually matter twenty years later.
What does Illini Hillel mean to you?
I look back and I see it as a foundation and a launch pad from which I’ve built a lot of aspects of my life.
How has Illini Hillel impacted you?
Alan Potash, the executive director at the time, was the first person to encourage me to actively do something that my parents were very opposed to–attending a student leader summit in Israel during the 2nd Intifada. It was the first time in my life that an adult in a position of authority who I respected and admired was specifically advising me to do something that was against what my parents wanted–they were extremely concerned about the security and safety situation at the time. And that moment felt transitional in terms of transitioning from being a child to being an emerging adult, in terms of recognizing the sense of agency and control over your own life. Similarly, I was really pushed outside my comfort zone for the first time getting involved with interfaith work. It was really easy to run services at Hillel, or put together a dinner, or host a party. But representing an organization externally, with parties that did not necessarily agree with our standpoints was a first for me. [What stands out] so many years later is the support of that transition point from youth to young adulthood, and the challenge and importance of testing my own horizons and trying new things that seem scary, and then reaping the benefits of that.
What is something you would want to tell future generations about Hillel?
Give it a try. Give anything a try.
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