New director of Hillel Foundation at OU seeks to encourage growth among Jewish students

By Melissa A. Wabnitz

Transcript Staff Writer

Atlas may have had it easier. Though Rabbi Jeremy Cassius, recently appointed director of the Hillel Foundation at the University of Oklahoma, may not have the weight of the world on his shoulders, Cassius is, in many ways, attempting to do something exceptionally challenging: Kick-starting a renaissance in the Oklahoma Jewish community.

At one time, the University of Oklahoma was home to an estimated 2,000 Jewish students. Though that number has now dwindled to around 300, Cassius said he's hoping above all, he and his wife Aliza, who recently moved here from Cleveland with their two young daughters, can revive interest not only in Hillel activities, but in Jewish fraternity and togetherness.

The word rabbi, Cassius said, means "teacher." Cassius said he views his role as a rabbi and the executive director at Hillel as ultimately, "a link to help people get closer to God."

A women's group has been formed at Hillel, as have Talmud classes, which allow students or others in the community to study Jewish texts and prayers with Cassius. Once a week, Jewish freshmen gather at a local bar and grill for socializing. And, as if all that togetherness weren't enough, the Cassius family has regularly opened their home to students for additional get-togethers since they moved here in July.

"We're basically trying to create functions for target groups to involve people in the way they feel comfortable being Jewish, whether it is at Hillel or not," Cassius said.

"It's sort of like a passion that we have to help out college students and help them realize their abilities and opportunities to grow Jewishly, whether it be religiously or culturally or socially, however it is. Build awareness that they can be proud of their heritage."

Working with the OU recruitment office to bring in Jewish students from surrounding states, Cassius said he hopes to see the Hillel rosters filled once again in the near future, a goal encouraged by record attendance at the recent back-to-school bash.

"A professor commented that it was the first time in 15 years, he's seen that kind of interest for the kick-off barbecue," Cassius said.

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