A new school year and a Jewish new year also mean a new start for the Hillel programs at the University of Louisville and Bellarmine University, and this year, that also means a new staff: Hillel Director Devon Oser and Israel Advocate Kevin Altman.
Both will be working part time at the Interfaith Center on the University of Louisville’s Belknap Campus. Oser will be in the office on Fridays from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and Altman will be there on Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hillel began this school year with a barbecue event that drew about 30 people. Keeping the momentum going, U of L Hillel President Josh Goodman hosted both a Sukkah building program on October 7 and a Sukkot Sizzle Shabbat dinner at his home, complete with candle lighting.
The first Schmooze with the Jews pizza and movie night drew 15 students. This will be a monthly program on the second Tuesday of every month that will give students an opportunity to relax and visit. They will choose the movie they want to see, and it promises to be a lot of fun.
The next program, What Am I?, will offer students the opportunity to participate in an open discussion about what it means to be a Jewish student on campus today.
“This event is so important,” Oser said, “because there is a lot going on nationwide with anti-Semitism and the Boycott-Divest-Sanction Movement. There have been a lot of events on other college campuses involving Jewish college students and students who are pro-Palestine with too many conflicts for my liking.
“It’s very concerning,” she continued, “and actually the vice president of our organization, Leah Culp, asked if we could do some sort of event where we really created an open dialogue where Jewish students could to get together and talk about how to combat any future issues that may arise on campus, be it a derogatory term being thrown out or the apartheid week which will happen in the spring.”
Dr. Ranen Omer-Sherman, who holds the new endowed Chair of Jewish Studies, will “sit down with the students and address any concerns that they have on campus.” He’ll also talk about what’s been going on on other campuses nationwide.
The intent is to create a safe environment where students can ask questions and get advice if they encounter any situations that make them feel uncomfortable on campus and help them come up with solutions.
Omer-Sherman has also agreed to be Hillel’s faculty advisor this year. “We are very excited,” Oser said. “He is energetic; he is wonderful, absolutely wonderful; and he’s really been helpful.
“He reached out to me when I first got here,” Oser added, “to welcome me into the position and he’s just been great with giving me ideas of ways to facilitate discussions between students and professors and different ways about thinking about certain issues.”
“We also have a presence at Bellarmine University,” Oser said, and all Bellarmine students are always invited to any events we have at the University of Louisville. Later in the year, there will be some events planned on the Bellarmine campus as well.
Connecting students with the Jewish community is also a priority for Oser, so she is working to establish an ongoing monthly lunch and learn program that will start in November. She explained, “we will take students out to lunch and pair them with a local rabbi or one of the professors from the Jewish Studies Program so that students have another informal way of talking with people from the community.”
The format is fluid, she continued. “It’s whatever the students want, so it will either be one-on-one or it will be a group of a couple of Jewish students who will go out to lunch with a rabbi or a professor.”
“I’m making my way around and talking to all of the rabbis here in town so they know what we’re doing at the Hillel this year,” she said, “and also to see if they want to get involved at all with upcoming Hillel activities.” So far, she’s had a positive response from all the rabbis with whom she has spoken.
Hillel will also encourage students to attend national conventions like Jewlicious and TribeFest and to take Birthright Israel trips. “Right now,” she said, “we are working with Shorashim to encourage students to go on a Birthright trip that’s during winter break. That trip is for students at the University of Cincinnati and Miami University as well as students here.
“That would be a really neat trip,” she observed, “because it will let students not only experience the wonders of Israel, but it will also let students do that with kids from their own area. That way, when they get back, if they make lifelong friends, which hopefully they will, it will be easier to keep in touch with them.”
An expanded Hillel website is also in the works, and Oser has been sprucing up the Hillel office to make it more inviting.
Originally from Columbus, OH, Oser is an attorney who accepted a job in the Public Defender’s Office and came to Louisville in August, 2012.
“When I moved here,” she said, “I didn’t know a soul and one of the first people that I met outside of work was Tzivia Levin Kalmes. I contacted Tzivia because I was interested in becoming a part of the Jewish community here and she took me by the hand and helped me to do that.”
Kalmes was the young adult director for the Jewish Federation of Louisville and Hillel director at the time, and has since left Louisville for a new opportunity.
Growing up in Columbus, Oser and her family were members of the Reform temple Congregation Beth Tikvah, where she celebrated her bat mitzvah and participated in other events.
She earned her Bachelor of Music in harp performance from the University of Michigan, completing her studies in just three years. Even with a heavy course load, Oser found time to participate in some Hillel events, although not as many as she wanted.
After taking a year off, she went to law school at the University of Cincinnati and earned her Juris Doctorate in 2012. “I took the job at the Public Defender’s Office to advocate on behalf of people who didn’t have a voice to speak for themselves,” she explained.
Recently, she left the Public Defender’s Office to go into private practice, and, she said, “I wanted to continue my path of community service and to continue to reach out to organizations that I felt passionate about.
“After becoming very close to individuals from the young adult program here,” Oser said, “I realized that given the current issues with Israel, the Jewish people as a whole, and especially college students, need to do more to educate others on what their identity is and that just because the news is representing Israel in one light does not necessarily mean that that is what Israel stands for. And there’s no better way to do that than by getting college students involved with these causes.”
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve become really involved with the Jewish community,” Oser said, and she has been attending young adult events.”
In fact, it was at a YAD event that a mutual friend introduced her to Brett Hudspeth, and today, they are married. Hudspeth, who is also involved with YAD events, works for Humana and “loves his job, so we plan to stay here,” Oser said.
It was also at a YAD event that Oser met Sara Wagner, the Senior Vice President and Chief Operation Officer of the Jewish Community of Louisville, and soon they began “talking about the young adult programming in Louisville and how to increase participation for young Jewish students and young Jewish adults.”
Wagner and Oser began brainstorming some ways to start incorporating more young adult programming at the Jewish Community Center and through the Jewish Community of Louisville.” That led to discussions of ways to increase programming for Hillel, too. “And so that’s how I came to be here and involved with the Jewish programming,” she said.
For Oser and Hudspeth, their Louisville family includes a toy poodle, Norman. Her parents, Nadine and Michael Oser, live in Columbus, where her mother is a magistrate in Franklin County Juvenile Court and her father is an attorney in solo practice.
Her sister, Cheri, who recently passed away, was an attorney who specialized in labor and employment law.
Kevin Altman is a graduate student at U of L, who served an internship with the Jewish Community of Louisville, helping out with the Jewish Community Relations Council.
This summer, he was in Israel when the war broke out and he wrote some articles about his experiences for Community. They are available at www.jewishlouisville.org. Watch the next issue of Community for more about him.