By David Zenlea

If you have spent much time at the University of Michigan Hillel, you probably know about The Rock — a large stone nearby that students have been slathering with paint since the 1950s. You may also be aware that it was recently drafted into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last summer, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students waged a war of graffiti on the landmark, slathering it with opposing and at times vitriolic slogans. 

It was the latest flashpoint for the Ann Arbor Jewish community, which has seen a few of them in recent years, from the student government’s 2017 campaign to get the University to divest from Israeli companies to the weekly anti-Israel “protests” outside Beth Israel, the conservative synagogue a few blocks southeast of Hillel.   

Yet Tilly Shemer, executive director of the University of Michigan Hillel, suggests we shift our focus from the big rock to a small utility box alongside it. At the height of the summer’s confrontations, someone painted a pride flag and a Star of David on the box, along with the message, “Jews love pride.” It’s still there.

“Even though the rock has been painted over hundreds of times in the last nine months, the electric box still has that rainbow flag, message, and Star of David on it. I drive by that every single day and am filled with a feeling of, ‘This is Ann Arbor,’” she said.

In many ways, Hillel strives to be like the electric box. It quietly powers Ann Arbor’s Jewish community and aims to be open for all, whether they’re professionals coming for minyan or undergraduates looking to play ice hockey. This mission isn’t new — there has been a Hillel at the corner of Hill Street and Washtenaw Avenue since 1942, nearly as long as that rock–but it has become more challenging during the decade-plus Shemer has been here. The pandemic made it difficult for people to crowd into the building; increasing polarization has made it harder for them to share opinions. Yet Shemer believes it’s still possible — and important — to create a space where Jews of all stripes can feel comfortable and learn from each other. 

“I think that we have this balance that we’re trying to achieve, between supporting students to find their people and find their community, while also pushing them to be exposed to a broader community,” she said. “Whether that’s broader within our own Jewish community or broader on campus.”

Tilly and Students at U of M Hillel

We spoke to Shemer on the occasion of her “Bat Mitzvah” (13 years) at the Michigan Hillel about how she got here, what continues to inspire her, and what keeps her up at night.

“Hillel didn’t force me to choose to do one thing”

I think I’m an unlikely Jewish professional. My background is in Environmental Studies and Political Science. I didn’t step foot into Hillel until my last year of university. I think that helps me think about the people who don’t step foot into Hillel. 

I started in the Jewish [professional] world in Israel-advocacy organizations. These organizations often had one particular mission they were putting forward. I always thought about the questions and the conversations that were not a part of that organization. 

When I finally found my way to Hillel of Greater Toronto [where Shemer is from and where her Hillel career started], I found an organization where I could be a director of Israel affairs, but also be exposed to all of the diversity and pluralism of what Hillel had to offer. Hillel is pluralistic in its vision, its practice, and its religious leadership. It’s bringing Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox students together, providing spaces for them to pray and find people who share similar values, but it also tries to bring everybody together and see each other and respect each other. And as somebody who was entering this field with a passion for Israel, I was so attracted to bring that same pluralistic and diverse vision and see the potential of it in our Israel programming.

I feel very suited for a Hillel career because it didn’t force me to choose to do one thing. It enabled me to bring the fullness of my identity and my values and my interests forward. And now I just try to achieve that for our students. In particular, I try to think about the students who never step foot into Hillel — like me — and how we can capture them. 

I [also] met my wife through Hillel [Or Shemer, who also works in the Israel education space], so I will be forever grateful to Hillel for that, as well.

Tilly in front of the University of Michigan Hillel building

“I want to be the kind of Jewish leader that really focuses more on all of the days in between.”

There’s so much attention paid to anti-Israel incidents on campus, and I don’t want to minimize them. They’re very painful when they happen. We are here in support of our students during those moments. But what I think everybody else misses out on is the message on that electric box I pass every day — they miss all of those days when University of Michigan is a great place to feel proud as a Jewish student and to explore your Jewish identity out of your parents’ home for the first time. I want to be the kind of Jewish leader who really focuses more on all of the days in between. We need to use those days to enrich the lives of our Jewish students and instill that relationship with and knowledge about Israel so that students can, first, understand why they feel upset when something anti-Israel comes to campus, and second, feel empowered to say something about it. 

An opportunity to rethink and rebrand”

As we’re making our way out of this latest stage of COVID (and we’re not quite out of it yet — I just taught a class for two hours and I had a mask on for the entire time) we now have two years of institutional memory loss amongst our students. We need to reestablish that culture. It has, however, created an opportunity for us to do things differently. 

When we knew in the summer of 2020 that we were not going to be able to gather in large groups, most of our programming had to shift to people’s homes and small groups. We didn’t have the infrastructure to be able to coordinate that.

We turned to our partners at One Table, who are the Jewish communal leaders in small group gatherings in people’s homes. We worked with them to create a new online platform that uses their technology but applied to our Hillel environment. Programs are now being advertised there and students can go on there to sign up for Shabbat dinner. And then they see that there’s an Israel event that another friend of theirs is posting or, “Oh, there’s the Purim event Hillel is doing — I can sign up for that.” It was a game changer for us, a total cultural shift for us in empowering students to own their programming and reach even more students. And it enabled our staff to focus on student engagement rather than administration.

A bagel brunch welcomes students in Ann Arbor

“What really keeps me up at night is mental health.”

I think most people would assume that for a Hillel director, the thing that keeps me up at night is anti-Israel stuff on campus. What really keeps me up at night is mental health concerns for our students and the social and academic pressures that they’re under. A lot of our programming, either directly or indirectly addresses that concern that we have about this generation. That may look like a walk in the park, or helping students find friends or community or running Wellness Wednesday programs with yoga and meditation.

One of the students who was here tonight said that she’s been doing meditation every day, since we did a meditation program on one of these Wellness Wednesdays. That’s amazing that now she’s incorporated that relaxation technique into her life from a program that she did here. I want them to feel that sense of separation and relaxation and comfort when they come to Hillel. 

Tilly with U of M students

“I’m aware of my leadership role and my gender.”

I think a lot about gender issues in the Hillel movement and in the broader Jewish community, and I want to bring my leadership to those issues. I feel a sense of responsibility to shed light on these issues with our staff and with our students. That’s just another hat that I wear, because I’m aware of my leadership role and my gender.

I do think we have seen change. Our own Hillel has changed our personnel code and family leave policy — I believe we’re leading the Hillel movement in our family leave policy right now. I want that to be modeled as an example for others. Hillel International has done wonderful work around salary bands, and transparency around salaries, sending a very strong message both to the directors in the field and also to prospective Hillel employees. And I’m also seeing wonderful professional development opportunities through Hillel International, around advancing women and giving them the tools to advance to leadership and director positions.

Things change slowly, and it’s important that we talk about these issues so that they can change.