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Features & Articles

Pitt Hillel creates meaningful cultural experiences on campus and beyond

  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

Kari Semel initially joined Pitt Hillel in 2018 to fulfill a field placement requirement for her social work master’s program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Three months in, the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue building happened. After that, her involvement in the Pitt branch of the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh (Hillel JUC) became less about requirements and more about impact.

“I quickly jumped into a larger team role and led our efforts in student wellness to provide a support system for students institutionally,” said Semel.

Today, Semel (SOC WK ’20G) is the assistant director of Hillel JUC, a citywide organization committed to supporting and enriching the lives of more than 2,500 Jewish college students in Pittsburgh, including those at Pitt. The organization provides weekly Shabbat dinners, fellowships, community service opportunities and holiday gatherings, among other initiatives. Before COVID-19, the group also hosted trips for Jewish and non-Jewish Pitt student leaders to Israel and Palestine to engage in dialogue, experience the cultures and learn about the geopolitics of the region.

We create meaningful experiences,” said Semel. “We aren’t a one-size-fits-all program. We adapt to focus on the different needs of students throughout their college trajectory.”

Current Hillel students said they agree.

“Our immersive experiences are based on students’ interests,” said Hillel JUC president Melanie Silver. The junior digital narrative and interactive design major in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences who’s minoring in computer science and pursuing a Jewish studies certificate said her leadership role means ensuring the campus is a place where all Jewish students feel welcome.

[Check out Pitt Hillel’s Passover events]

“Pitt Hillel provides a home base for Jewish students to connect with their religion and culture, no matter their previous experiences in Judaism,” said Silver. She said the most rewarding aspect of her presidency is helping first-year Hillel students find their place at Pitt. 

Linguistics major Olivia Snyder is one of hundreds of first-year students who benefit from Silver’s and Hillel’s inclusion efforts.

“Hillel is great for freshmen,” said Snyder. “It’s a widely accepting community that caters to a diverse range of students.”

Semel attributes Hillel’s success to students, outstanding full-time staff members at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University and key community partners. 

“We’re grateful for our partnerships with student organizations, the Jewish studies department, our friends at Vaad Harabonim and the University of Pittsburgh,” she said. 

The Vaad, she explained, is the gatekeeper that ensures food meets the strictest level of kosher requirements and supervises Pitt’s kosher offerings.

Still, despite camaraderie and support, challenges persist for Jewish students.

“The most significant challenge Jewish students face today is the reality of antisemitism, both in the classroom and outside of it,” said Silver. “This comes in the form of access to resources including kosher food options and class exemptions for Jewish holiday-related absences.”

Fortunately, said Semel, “Pitt listens.”

“We can’t snap our fingers and change institutional policy, but we have partners, and we’re grateful for the platform they give us,” she said. 

While Hillel caters to Jewish students, it remains open to all and promotes what Semel refers to as universal human values, like respect and fairness — qualities she sees reflected in Hillel students each year.

“We staff gain much more from students than they gain from us. Every year, we learn more from them and are so proud of their work. The best part is to see where they go beyond Hillel and to know that we helped connect the dots for students.” 


— Kara Henderson, photography by Mike Drazdzinski