People and Community University

UM Hillel receives ‘Outstanding Campus’ award

For more than 77 years, UM Hillel has provided a vibrant and diverse “home-away-from-home” that is focused on the many facets of Jewish life on campus and beyond.
co-presidents of UM Hillel

Co-Presidents of UM Hillel Brandon Jackson and Casey Dresbach show their school spirit. Photo courtesy UM Hillel.

When Brandon Jackson began filling out college applications four years ago, one of his priorities was to attend an institution with an active Jewish community. A Long Island, New York native, Jackson grew up in a heavily populated Orthodox Jewish community.

After exploring what the University of Miami and UM Hillel had to offer and with the support of his parents, he said the choice was easy as UM ranks in the top 10 of private colleges chosen by Jewish students.

Now a senior majoring in biology with a triple minor in chemistry, exercise physiology, and art, Jackson and Casey Dresbach, co-student presidents of UM Hillel, have spent much of their time helping reach more than half of UM’s 2,000 Jewish students through dynamic and meaningful connections. Under the leadership of Igor Khokhlov, executive director of UM Hillel, the last three years have been devoted to increasing Jewish culture on campus.

From renovating the Braman Miller Center for Jewish Student Life, to doubling their Birthright and Onward Israel program participation, which sends over 120 students on a transformative Jewish identity experience, UM Hillel is a gateway for Jewish and non-Jewish students to get involved. 

Rabbi Lyle Rothman speaking to audience.
Rabbi Lyle Rothman speaks to students at the Braman Miller Center for Jewish Student Life. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

Last month UM Hillel was awarded the 2018 Philip H. and Susan Rudd Cohen Outstanding Campus Award at the Hillel International Global Assembly in Denver, Colorado. This award honors one Hillel out of more than 550 colleges and universities in the world that displays excellence in engaging students from all backgrounds and creating a non-judgmental physical and spiritual space that is open, welcoming, and diverse in expression.

 “UM Hillel has been a part of my college experience since my freshman year when I was selected to be the social action chair,” Jackson, said. “Taking the Birthright trip has been one the best trips of my life. Rabbi Lyle (Rothman) helped me realize how important these experiences were fostering my Jewish identity and beyond.”

Dresbach is passionate about serving on the executive board as president.

“I have watched the organization grow tremendously over the last four years at the U,” she said. “The transformation faced no boundaries; a spiritual, physical, and all-encompassing change was the most beautiful thing to happen to the greater UM community. Hillel has changed my whole experience at UM and has done a perfect job at making me feel welcomed and at-home. In a lot of ways, I am more comfortable with who I am because of UM Hillel.”

In 2016, Khokhlov recruited Rabbi Lyle Rothman to UM Hillel, making a team of nine full-time staffers. In 2017, Rabbi Rothman was chosen to be the chair of UM’s Chaplains Association based on his dedication to providing the student body with a broad range of spiritual resources.

 “It’s been a wonderful match – it’s a dynamic place to be,” said Rothman. “The students here are incredible. They are the reason we won this award.”

Khokhlov agrees. “They are smart, they are sharp and I think they are exposed to the very best of Miami. It’s hard to compete with the night life outside of UM. It’s a very high bar, but when you have students showing up for our Friday night Shabbat dinner, that’s a sign that they are not at the trendy restaurant in Brickell. I am proud of my team for meeting our student body’s demands,” he said.

One of the key achievements that Khokhlov’s organization has done and he is most proud of, is working to change the culture on campus to one that provides student-driven initiatives rooted in building relationships with others beyond the 2,000 Jewish students.

And the feelings are mutual as Jackson and Dresbach think highly of their religious campus leaders.

 “We truly have the best staff across the country,” said Jackson. “Our advisors and administrators are doers and want the best for us all. Rabbi Lyle brings such a light to our community. Igor is the type of person that wants to see the students doing things that make them happy and he always puts the students first.”

Rothman added, “Unlike some of the other faith-based student organizations, UM Hillel is much more than a religious club on campus.  We are the Jewish social, cultural and religious hub for innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Among UM Hillel’s many other accomplishments include tripling the number of students who attend the Jewish Learning Fellowship, a 10-week learning seminar that inspires students to “wrestle with who they are and what they believe”; opening the restaurant Pura Vida – conveniently connected to the Braman Miller Center – which provides kosher meals as part of the school’s meal plan; partnering with The David Project and American Jewish Committee, resulting in hosting Jewish Latino Summit and Alternative Spring Break trips to Cuba, Brazil and Argentina; hosting its first interfaith conference in October 2018 which hosted leaders, imams, rabbis, and evangelical pastors from the community to meet and discuss how to bring awareness to university campuses in the country; and Religious Awareness Day, an opportunity for faith groups to highlight one area in one space. 

 “Winning this award is a culmination of everyone’s hard work these past few years,” Jackson said. “It’s great that they saw us in the light that I see us in every day.”