So KU Hillel, along with the university’s admissions department, has created a new tradition, Jewhawk Day, to showcase Jewish life at KU to high school juniors and seniors. This year’s Jewhawk Day is set for Oct. 24.
Jay Lewis, KU Hillel’s executive director, said Jewhawk Day was initiated three years ago, the idea of KU Hillel board members Eric Kaseff and Michael Novicoff.
"At that time they had high school seniors and they and their kids thought it would be great for Jewish high school students to see KU through a Jewish lens," Lewis said.
The two teens — Jake Novicoff and Rachel Kaseff — worked with KU Hillel staff to plan that first event. Now the event is planned by current KU students. This year’s chairs are seniors Ben Davis and Kenzie Litt.
"Jewhawk Day is important because it’s not the ordinary tour of KU. These kids not only get to see KU and it’s natural beauty, but what it’s like to be Jewish on the KU campus and how important it is to continue developing your Jewish identity once you are on your own," Litt said. "Participating in Jewhawk Day also allows them to spend time with current Jewish students and experience a Shabbat celebration which I think is the most beneficial part of the entire day."
Jewhawk Day was established after Litt and Davis were already KU students. Davis, who hails from Wichita, said he originally planned to go out of state to find a school with a strong Jewish population, before he learned KU is home to approximately 2,000 Jewish students.
"I had no idea there was a school a few hours away that had exactly what I was looking for. Our goal is to show people, in one day, why KU has become a destination school for Jews across the country. I lucked into finding that out. We want students to know about KU and KU Hillel before they choose their school so their decision is as informed as possible," Davis said.
Lewis said KU Hillel has partnered with the KU admissions department on this event from the very beginning. KU provides all the information about the university as well as other perks, such as scheduling part of the Jewhawk Day program at Allen Fieldhouse, home of the basketball Jayhawks.
"This is really part of an ongoing terrific relationship we have with the Office of Admissions. The university really sees us as a terrific asset in what we bring to the university, but also what we bring to attracting students to the university. This is one of a number of different things we do with admissions to help promote KU to Jewish students and Jewish families," Lewis said.
The partnership is important to KU admissions as well, said Heidi Simon, senior associate director of the Office of Admissions.
"KU has a large, vibrant Jewish community. The work that Jay and his team have done has put KU Hillel on the map as a destination college for Jewish students. Our admissions representatives have many inquiries from prospective Jewish students, both locally and nationally, and this special visit day helps us highlight the benefits of being Jewish at KU while showcasing the other benefits of being at a top ranked, AAU, Flagship university," Simon said.
Lewis said this event does not replace the recruiting days planned by KU.
"Our intention is for it to be a supplement to a campus tour they might make with their parents," Lewis said. "We don’t do the full campus tour, we don’t discuss financial aid, all those things you might do on a junior or senior day.
"This is an opportunity to be with their peers, to have interaction directly with Jewish KU students and to be able to really experience what it is to be a Jewish student at KU."
Davis thinks this chance to visit with KU students is a very important part of the Jewhawk Day experience.
"Every student has different priorities, therefore each student will have a different set of questions they are expecting to have answered at the event," said Davis, adding that 15 to 20 current KU students will help with the event.
"We hope that the biggest takeaway the high school students get from Jewhawk Day will be from the conversations they have with current KU students. Things like: ‘Do you go to class on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?’ ‘Do people actually go to Shabbat?’ ‘Is it hard to get involved?’ ‘Will I get funny looks if I wear a shirt with Hebrew on it on campus?’ The answers to these questions are more impactful when a student asks the question and a student answers. We hope the high school students leave knowing that however they choose to experience their Judaism at KU, there will be a place for them here," Davis said.
Litt, who is from Minneapolis, Minn., said she thinks the most important lesson Jewhawk Day teaches future Jayhawks is how to get involved early on in their freshman year.
"Many kids are afraid or don’t know how to start getting involved and Jewhawk Day forces them to meet students that will be at KU when they come in the fall, meaning they’ll already have that connection to Hillel and other organizations. The relationships may not flourish immediately, but the foundation is created and it’s a stepping stone toward their involvement on campus," she said.
Besides the Jewish questions, Litt said the current KU students answer questions about classrooms, student housing, sports, where to eat, nightlife, Greek life, and of course, Hillel. Participants will also have a chance to learn about the honors program, the Jewish Studies program and Hebrew classes.
"We want to be their support system through this process because we remember how scary and intimidating it can be to choose a college. Even if they are from Kansas, they’re moving away from home for the first time in 18 years to live on their own. We want them to want to be here and to love it just as much as we do," Litt said.
Lewis pointed out this event is just for students; parents aren’t invited. While the program took place last year on Rock Chalk Shabbat so the participants could experience KU Hillel’s signature event and largest fundraiser (slated this year for Nov. 7), this year the date was chosen so many of the Kansas City students would not miss a day of school.
"We found a day where both Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley were out of school," Lewis said. High school juniors and seniors from other school districts in the area are expected to attend as well as students from Topeka and Wichita, Kan., Omaha, Neb., and Tulsa, Okla.
Last year 50 teens attended the event and at least that many are projected to attend this year. In addition to meeting KU students, they will visit the Hillel office and have an opportunity to explore downtown Lawrence. Lunch takes place at Naismith Hall, a privately-owned residence hall that has a high percentage of Jewish residents.
This event is important to KU Hillel, Lewis said.
"We are proud of the impact we are making on the future of Jewish life in Kansas City and the future of the Jewish community overall, but we’re also really proud of the impact we’ve had on the University of Kansas and to play our part in helping promote how great it is to be a student here at KU and especially how great it is to be a Jewish student. There’s really no better school in this area or anywhere close to be a student and so to help shine the light on that is something we’re proud to be a part of."
This event is free to local high school juniors and seniors. A bus will leave the Jewish Community Campus at 10 a.m. and is expected to return to Overland Park at about 9 p.m. For more information, contact Lewis.