When you walk into Hillel on an average morning, you can never be too sure whom you might find. Students come and go, staff may or may not have arrived at their offices yet, and depending on when you arrive, there may or may not be a prayer service happening on the second floor. There is but one exception to this uncertainty: the students who are placed at Hillel to work through the federal work-study program. They greet students upon entering the building, and they staff the Coffee Bean, among other things. They are practically always there.
At Hillel, the work-study staff includes 15 part-time student workers, most of whom are not Jewish.
Isabel Krein, who graduated from UCLA in 2017, has been working at Hillel for five years — since fall quarter of her freshman year. She mentioned that before coming to Hillel, her experience and knowledge of the Jewish community was limited. “There was one student in my [high] school who was Jewish,” she said.
“There’s a lot of really great people in this building,” Krein said. “But no one outside of staff knew who I was until I was a sophomore here.” At that point, she said, she had worked at the Coffee Bean at least 10 hours a week for more than a year.
Even after a year at Hillel, no one in the community knew Krein’s name. Krein saw Jewish students on campus all the time. They recognized her, but they had no idea who she was. After enough of these encounters, Krein started to feel that the Jewish community did not really care about her. Other work-study students from Hillel staff shared Krein’s sentiments.
“Hillel is this place where [people involved say] ‘we are all welcoming'” Krein said. “‘You do not have to be Jewish to come here, we welcome everyone, we want diversity’… but at the end of the day, they don’t care unless you are Jewish.”
Krein mentioned that Hillel has catered programming almost every day for Jewish students, but when it came to an end-of-the-year goodbye dinner for the work-staff, they had to fundraise the money themselves.
Johnny Linares, another work-study student, has a different view of his interactions with Jewish students at Hillel. Linares said he has “very positive experiences with people here.… I get along with staff, I get along with students here … everyone is generally nice,” but continued to say that despite his positive experience, he also “didn’t feel like a minority until [he] started coming to UCLA, and more specifically until [he] started working here [at Hillel].” Linares said that Hillel’s upper management views work-study students as numbers.
Krein elaborated that half of the wages for work-study salaries come from the federal government, while the other half comes from Hillel. Once the government funds run out — which she said usually occurs by week eight of the quarter — it is up to Hillel to decide whether or not Hillel wants to continue the employment of their work-study staff. Often, this leaves students who are supporting themselves through college without a job.
After speaking to a number of Hillel work-study students, it became clear that many of them felt the same way as Krein and Linares. Many were uncomfortable to go on the record, however, for fear of various negative repercussions.
When asked for an opinion on the sentiments expressed by Hillel work-study students, Rabbi Aaron Lerner, Executive Director for Hillel at UCLA, declined to comment. Rabbi Lerner instead referred Ha’Am to Greg Santiago, Hillel’s Operations Coordinator. Santiago, who graduated from UCLA in 2014, started as a work-study student at Hillel eight years ago before joining the Hillel team full time after his graduation.
Santiago said that the work-study experience has changed a lot throughout the years. Eight years ago, Santiago said that he may not have known a single coworker’s name due to the strict task-oriented and administrative managerial style used at the time. In the past three years of Santiago’s Coffee Bean management, he has attempted to create a self-managing work-study team that connects positively with each other.
“I have had to change the way I interact with my employees only because they ultimately still need to feel like they’re welcome in the building,” Santiago said, “and because I came from work-study, I get that sometimes there is a struggle in fitting in that bubble. Ultimately, I do my best to kind of show them that we do appreciate their work and we are here for them whenever… I can only do so much to make that feeling happen, but it really does rely on other staff to make that connection.”
Regardless of the perspectives, there are people at the Hillel who do not feel welcomed. For many, Hillel is a safe haven of Jewish life on campus. Although such an assessment is true, we cannot forget about the many other people in the building with us, who enjoy the space and have a part in the building just as much, if not more than, the next person. Next time you see a work-study student — which is every day at Hillel — say hello, introduce yourself, say thank you, ask about their day, their midterms, their lives. Let’s convey the right message: We care.