12 nice Jewish boys vying for our hearts in an effort to raise money for admirable causes? Don’t mind if we do.
Taking place this past Tuesday night at the Kerckhoff Grand Salon, the first-ever Mr. Hillel Competition was a night filled with corny jokes, irrefutable talent, and swooning Jewish mothers. With approximately 250 attendees in a 146-seat salon, the packed event proved that food is not the only impetus for successfully gathering UCLA students.
Originally an idea passed around at the Hillel Student Leadership Retreat this past summer, the beauty pageant-style event was ultimately an early celebration of Purim, ergo the mishloach manot (Purim baskets) distributed towards the end. Hillel Student Board Events Co-Chairs, Sophie Isakowitz and Nathali Roizman, aspired to unite students through the event and encourage them to become more involved with Hillel, all the while emphasizing the importance of Jewish values, such as tzedakah (“charity”) and tikkun olam (“repairing the world”).
Students began a line outside the salon doors at around 5:30 p.m. to secure seats to the event. Each $5 donation amounted to one ticket, or vote, towards the contestant(s) of the donor’s choice. $18 “Nice Jewish Boys of UCLA” calendars with photos of the contestants were also available for purchase. The contestant with the most votes by the audience would win the people’s choice award and 25% of the proceeds for his cause, and the contestant chosen by the judges would win the title of Mr. Hillel, a Coffee Bean drink named after him, and 75% of the proceeds for his charitable cause. The carefully chosen judges included Hillel president, Yael Glouberman, UC Student Regent, Avi Oved, Assistant Director of Hillel, Mike Amerikaner, and acclaimed UCLA gymnast, Sophina DeJesus.
The contestants underwent a meticulous selection process. The application was open to all UCLA Jewish males during the first two weeks of winter quarter, and included a series of questions and an audition with a short evaluation of each contestant’s talents. According to Roizman, “We had many more boys apply and audition than we anticipated, but we ended up choosing 12 of the nicest Jewish boys who we knew would put on a great show and raise money for their charities of choice.”
The final contestants included Rafi Sands (Sickle Cell Disease Foundation of California), Ariel Azhdam (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital), Ariel Rafalian (The Youth Movement Against Alzheimer’s), Adam Ellis (The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation), Skylar Elis (Camp Kessem), Austin Nasso (Alzheimer’s Association), Omer Hit (Bilingual Kindergarten run by Ehab and Ora), Gil Bar-Or (HIAS — Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), Josh Ghoulian (Swipe Out Hunger at UCLA), Imanouel Tsimchi (Red Cross), Jacob Finn (Ziv Hospital in Tzfat, Israel) and Jackson Mercer (National Kidney Foundation).
As the attendees situated themselves in their seats and along the balcony, a projector displayed a series of short clips of the contenders answering questions, such as “What is your spirit animal?” Hosts Elan Kramer and Julie Lanctot started off the night thereafter, referring to the event as the boys’ “second bar-mitzvah,” and they explained the three components of the competition: talent, question and answer and Purim costume.
The talent portion of the night included serenades, raps, musical ensembles, comedy acts, poetry and even an interpretation of the Food Network. Evidently, a lot of time and creativity was put into each talent, and most of them made it onto the UCLA Snapchat story.
Next, the Q-and-A portion consisted of audience members picking out questions from a bag to read out to a particular contestant for which they had 30 seconds to respond. Questions included “What was your first-ever username name?” and “What would be the flavor of the Coffee Bean drink named after you if you were to be named Mr. Hillel?”
Lastly, the costume portion of the night had the boys coming out as the Jewish Zoolander, Noah AND his ark, a Jewish grandmother, an unidentifiable figure with a Jewish star taped to his bare chest, and more. The boys then surprised the audience with a ravishing dance choreographed by Leila Solouki and Nicolette Shamsian, after which they went around the audience to collect tickets.
As tickets were counted and the judges deliberated, the contestants were embraced by clips from their mothers wishing their sons luck and benevolently embarrassing them — a Jewish mother’s birthright.
Finally, Josh Ghoulian was announced as the people’s choice, and Ariel Azhdam was crowned Mr. Hillel. Following the event, Azhdam recounted: “I am beyond proud to represent Hillel, my home on campus that I love dearly, proud to raise money for a charity that means so much to me, and grateful for growing so close with all of these amazing individuals (contestants, people running the show, and everyone participating and attending).” With this win, Azhdam was not only able to designate 75% of the proceeds to the St. Jude Children’s Research hospital, but also to commemorate and honor his cousin who recently passed away from cancer.
Ultimately, the donations raised at the door and from calendar sales amassed to over $1,200. Isakowitz said: “We were beyond excited about this amount. This is the very first Mr. Hillel competition, so we were not sure how everything would pan out, but this sets a great precedent for years to come. In the future, we would love to have the guys each be responsible for fundraising a certain amount for the event, too.”
And for those wondering about the prospect of a Ms. Hillel, Isakowitz mentioned: “I cannot speak for what future Hillel students want to do, but as of now, that is not so much on our radar.” She indicated that expanding and embracing the male presence at Hillel was one of Mr. Hillel’s goals, whereas the female presence has already proven strong.
All in all, the event was an undeniable success and the time and effort put in by everyone involved was evident. According to Isakowitz, “There was definitely a time commitment that came with being involved in the show, but it was also a really great bonding experience for the guys and everyone who put the event on. Mr. Hillel was not only an opportunity to get the community excited about attending, but also about participating.”