Hillel at a Catholic school? Really?
For John Carroll University (JCU) sophomore David Markovich, the answer is a resounding yes. Really.
“I’d like to see Jewish students at John Carroll be able to relate to each other, to use each other as a means of support, and to have fun,” said Markovich, 19. “There’s a good amount of Jews here. I don’t want people to come in and think they’re the only Jew here. Because I did. (They’re) not alone.”
During the previous school year, Markovich teamed with The Cleveland Hillel Foundation and supportive faculty and friends to establish an official Hillel branch at JCU. The Catholic and Jesuit university of 3,700 students has some 25 students who officially list themselves as Jewish, although there may be as many as 25 more among those who do not list a religion.
The idea to launch a Hillel came to the Beachwood resident while he was attending one of the monthly gatherings JCU hosts for its commuter students. The commuter meetings are “basically a shmooze,” he said as he relaxed on couches outside the Student Union office on campus. Markovich began to wonder if there was a similar offering for Jewish students. When he found there wasn’t, he thought, “At the very least, Jewish students should be able to meet,” he said.
As he began his second semester, Markovich enlisted Jewish professor Gail Bass Arnoff and Gary Coleman, executive director of The Cleveland Hillel Foundation, to help develop his idea of a Jewish group on campus. Although warned that others “have tried and failed” to establish an organized Jewish presence at JCU, Markovich was determined he could make a go of it, he said.
“I try to stay active in the Jewish community,” he said. “I feel my duty is to represent the Jewish community the best I can” on a predominantly Catholic campus. “To me, if I get 10 out of 50 (Jewish) students to show up (to Hillel events), that’s a success.”
Markovich went through a series of applications and school requirements to establish a new student group and a series of Hillel organizational requirements to be officially affiliated with the national Jewish agency. Arnoff agreed to be his faculty adviser, while a Jewish grad student friend agreed to function as treasurer.
“I was very excited when David contacted me,” said Arnoff, who has taught freshman composition at JCU for six years. “It will be helpful for Jewish students and even Jewish faculty to have a group to come together and talk about issues relevant to them. We’re in such a minority on campus.”
Arnoff, who discusses her own Judaism in class to help educate her students and has offered to host Hillel gatherings in her home, thinks the “visibility” of a JCU Hillel will go a long way toward making unaffiliated Jewish students more willing to embrace their identity on campus.
Once Markovich completed the process to establish a new Hillel student group, JCU offered him funding to help ensure its success.
JCU Hillel has not yet hosted any student events. Markovich spent his freshman year raising awareness through a Facebook group and word of mouth. He also promoted the fledgling group to localjewishnews.com, a website geared toward Cleveland’s Orthodox community. When the site published an article about his endeavors, Markovich was contacted by several nearby families offering to host JCU students for Shabbat meals. Heights Jewish Center, just a few blocks away from campus, offered JCU Hillel free holiday seating.
Coleman of The Cleveland Hillel Foundation plans to assign staff to help Markovich (and eventually his student board) create programs specific to JCU. He also hopes to include JCU’s chapter in larger Cleveland Hillel events.
“It’s great that David has taken this initiative,” Coleman said. “I always say about Hillel work: All the great ideas (staff) might have are meaningless until students get involved. It’s better when students are driving it.”
Markovich, son of Irene and Levy Markovich, immigrants to Cleveland from the former Soviet Union, is a graduate of Gross Schechter Day School and Beachwood High School. An active volunteer at Wiggins Place who calls working with the elderly his “passion,” he is majoring in aging studies and plans to pursue a career in healthcare administration.
When deciding where to attend college, Markovich was torn between JCU and Yeshiva University, a Jewish school in New York. JCU won because it was a “homey” place within his hometown and offered him a better scholarship.
“My friend said maybe next I should try to start a Catholic group at Yeshiva University,” Markovich said with a laugh.