Hillel director listed among 50 most influential American Jews


Courtesy of Yonah Schiller

Rabbi Yonah Schiller has been added to the Forward 50 list of America’s most influential Jews.

Rabbi Yonah Schiller, executive director of Tulane Hillel, received a mysterious email from a colleague wishing him congratulations last Friday, before the Jewish holiday of Shabbat began. Unable to use the Internet or electronics during the holiday, he had to wait until Sunday to follow up.

After the holiday ended, Schiller was given some clarification. He had been chosen as one of Forward’s 50 most influential American Jews of the year.

“It’s funny, I had no idea that this was going to be happening,” Schiller said.

Forward is a Jewish-American magazine based in New York with a circulation of over 27,000 people. Each year they select 50 American Jews to highlight in categories such as community, culture, politics and sports.

Schiller was chosen largely because of his work with student leadership at Tulane. Soon after arriving at Hillel in 2008, Schiller began the Tulane Jewish Leaders program, giving students the opportunity to create their own programs related to Jewish identity and funding their proposals through a small grant pool.

“Tulane Jewish Leaders is all about enabling and activating students around their interests and passions and bring them into reality,” Schiller said.

He was tasked with finding ways to engage students in Jewish life and combat low attendance. Since then Hillel has gone on to host the Nice Jewish Boy pageant, the Green Wave Community Market and an architectural competition for sukkah design, which is a man-made booth used to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

“We responded by dissolving the existing student leadership board and sought students who would have never been involved with organized Jewish life,” Schiller wrote in a 2013 op-ed for the Huffington Post. “And we gave them the keys to the car.”

Since Schiller’s tenure began, Hillel’s budget has doubled and attendance at weekly Shabbat dinners has tripled.

Tulane Hillel now reaches 90 percent of the Tulane Jewish population and 30 percent of the total student body through their programs and events. There are over 300 Jewish student leaders in the program.

“The proudest moments for me are always watching students take on the mantle of determining, dictating and defining what Jewish life should be for them,” Schiller said. “When I see that happen through the hundreds of events that I’ve witnessed, there’s nothing more amazing and prideful than that.”

Schiller is also the founder of the Jewish Design Initiative, as well as the recipient of the 2013 Mortar Board Excellence in Teaching Award and the Helen A. Mervis Jewish Community Professional Award from the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana.

The award-winner attributes much of his success to his team at Tulane Hillel, especially Chief Operating and Programming Officer Liza Sherman and her program team.

“I think that success comes in the form of having great partners and a lot of luck, and I feel like I’ve had both,” Schiller said. “And I think most importantly, if anything, for me, it underscores the fact that we have a lot to do. I see this more as a beginning than anything else.”

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