Tilly Shames: Executive Director of U of M’s Hillel

This week, Her Campus had the immense pleasure to sit down and chat with Tilly Shames, the Executive Director of U of M’s Hillel. Originally from Toronto, Tilly joined Michigan’s Hillel team in 2008.

Her Campus: For the students who may not know, could you briefly explain what exactly Hillel is?

Tilly Shames: I think it might be easier to just explain what Hillel isn’t, because Hillel means so many things to so many people. Our mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they will enrich the Jewish people and the world. We start with the individual students and their interests, and how we can best meet their needs as a Jewish student on campus. From there, we help them connect to a Jewish community, help them consider what impact they want to have on that community, and what impact they want to have on the world.

We do this in lots of different ways. A lot of people think that Hillel is Shabbat dinner, and if they want to get involved in Hillel they need to come to Shabbat dinner. But that is far from the truth. Shabbat is one of the major programs we do, of course, and we love that we have 300+ students here every Friday night for dinner. But we have 50 student groups for students to get involved in, which range from political to social action to arts and culture programs. We try to create these micro-communities where students can find those with common interests. We also do lots of programs outside of the Hillel building and outside of Ann Arbor. We do alternative spring breaks where we take over 200 students per year to Israel on Birthright.  There are lots of different ways to get involved in Hillel, and there are lots of different expressions of Hillel and being involved in a Jewish community on campus.


HC: You are Hillel’s Executive Director. What does that entail?

TS: I think I have the best job in the Jewish world. I get to set the vision for the organization. Sometimes that looks like being up on the balcony looking at the big picture of the Jewish community, thinking about how to reach more people and how to be in partnership with other organizations. It also involves coming down to the floor and thinking about connecting Jewish students on their Jewish journey. It involves meeting students and thinking about different groups that they might be interested in, or opportunities to send them on a conference or a trip to Israel. I think a lot about how to be a good partner to the University and to our Ann Arbor and Detroit communities, and how to be a resource not just to our Jewish students, but also the parents and alumni who feel so passionately about this campus. I also have to make sure that we have money to run this Hillel and to do all of the wonderful programing that we do.

I also think a lot about my role as a female Executive Director of one of the largest Hillels in the country. Most of the large Hillels are run by men, while most of the field of Hillel professionals are women. I consider it my responsibility to use any power or opportunities I have in my role to uplift others, male and female, but I take a particular interest in supporting my female colleagues in their professional advancement and raising awareness about gender issues in the workplace. I try to bring this awareness of advocating for oneself to the female students I work with, and point out trends and gender disparities to male students and colleagues so that they too can think of how they can empower female leaders. It's certainly not in my job description, but it is a part of my role that I take very seriously. 


HC: How did you become involved in Jewish culture, learning, community organizing, etc., on a professional level?

TS: I was the kind of student that never stepped foot in my Hillel. I was not interested at all. And then in my junior year (I was an Environmental Studies major) a friend invited me to a Tu B’Shvat seder. Tu B’Shvat is the Jewish environmental holiday; it’s the New Years for the trees. It was a transformative program for me. I met the Hillel director there. When I met her she really took an interest in me. She made me feel like I mattered, and that she was interested in who I wanted to be as Jew. Within a month she sent me to a Jewish environmental conference in Arizona, and I started doing Jewish environmental programming for my peers in Environmental Studies.

At this point, I still never felt like I needed to step foot in Hillel; I could just do Jewish environmental programming and be supported by Hillel. We try to do that here in our Hillel, as well. Certainly there are lots of students who feel comfortable stepping through our doors, but there are a lot of students who find that intimidating. And we want them to feel that we’re here to support them on their Jewish journey, whether that’s in the Environmental Studies program, or Women’s Studies, or their residence halls, Greek Life; wherever they may be.


HC: What brought you to Michigan?

TS: I sometimes joke that it was the weather, because it is one or two degrees warmer here than in Toronto. Really, it was this job. I was working with Hillel in Toronto for five years, and I was really excited to continue to work in the Hillel world. I had an opportunity to come here for a year or two and work with the previous Executive Director who was very well known in the Hillel community. I came here thinking it would be a year or two, and then in my second year the director and the board approached me about staying and taking over this Hillel as Executive Director. And, how could I say ‘no’? We have the best Hillel in the country.


HC: How do you view Hillel’s role on campus?

TS: When I think about Hillel, I think of us as offering students both a hug and a push. The hug is the home away from home. I want students to feel like they can come here and see friendly faces and feel like they can find community, whether it’s at Shabbat dinner or one of our groups, and feel the comfort of familiarity. But I also feel we have an obligation and a responsibility to push students. I think that they want to be pushed. I think they want to be pushed to see the full diversity, pluralism, and potential that exists in the Jewish world. They want to be able to experience new things. I think it is really important that our students are able to shape their own opinions and ideas in university. Part of that can be done at Hillel. Part of shaping your own ideas, opinions and approaches to this world is about being exposed to new things and the diversity of what exists in the Jewish world. Sometimes that can be hard. It can be hard to be pushed outside of your comfort zone. I think ultimately, though, it really helps our students grow.


HC: What does an average day look like for you?

TS: There is not an average day at Hillel, and that is what I love. My day changes every day. I come in with a list of things that I think I’m going to do, and if I get three of them done that is a great day. I love being interrupted by a student who wants to talk about a new program idea or a new group that they want to develop in our Hillel. I supervise our staff, and I help them think about how they also are going to provide that push or that hug to our students. I will go for coffee with a professor and invite them to speak with our students, or meet with somebody in student life and talk about a partnership that we could potentially form there. Some days I will drive out to West Bloomfield to meet a donor or a board member. We try to figure out how we are going to reach out to students in different communities on campus, and how we can help them make their own Jewish communities outside of Hillel. I love thinking big picture about the Hillel world. I may be mentoring a colleague from another campus or thinking about women’s issues in the Jewish professional world, or other ways in which we can be better as a Hillel. I talk to a lot of parents and alumni, as well. Not just about donations and support, but about campus life. Often I talk to them about their concerns about anti-Semitism or anti-Israel activity on campus. I also love to find ways to interact with our alumni. Just yesterday I saw on Facebook that one of our alums had a baby, and we’re sending him a onesie for his newborn that says “Michigan” in Hebrew. It’s really nice to think about all the ways the students, the community, the parents, the alumni, and the campus partners can build community.


HC: What is your favorite part of your job? What do you find most rewarding?

TS: I think it is watching students grow, watching them make decisions for themselves. Coming to campus is such a pivotal time in students’ lives. It is the first time they can make decisions on their own outside of their parents’ home. Your mom is not knocking on your door saying “get downstairs, it is time to go to services!” It really is your choice. Will you skip class to go to services? Will you host a Rosh Hashanah dinner in your home to find community that way? What I really appreciate is when students feel as though they own their Jewish experience. They are hosting Shabbat or navigating conversations that are really challenging, doing interfaith programming or going to an event that they typically would not attend in order to hear from a different perspective. I have a front row seat to the growth that students undergo over their four years here on campus, and that is what I enjoy most.


HC: What is an accomplishment you would say you are most proud of since you began working here at Hillel?

TS: ShabUM. It is out Shabbat across campus. This was the third year that we did it, and it was a dream for a long time. Instead of hosting one dinner here for 300 students, we support students in running their own Shabbat in the home or in a dorm. We typically run or support 50 or more Shabbat dinners on campus in one night and reach over 1,000 students. I love that students come to Hillel and feel like they can find a home for Shabbat dinner, but I know that when a student has the experience of hosting dinner for themselves and their community (figuring out how they willl cook everything, calling their mom to find that kugel recipe) they are building knowledge and confidence and wonderful memories. I have every confidence that a student who hosts their own Shabbat dinner on campus will continue to host Shabbat dinners for the rest of their lives. That really has been the program that I am most proud of seeing come to fruition on our campus.


Photos courtesy of Tilly Shames and Michigan Hillel.