“While interviewing for the Hillel International Student Cabinet, I was asked about what my specific individual project would be upon acceptance into the group, and I responded by stating that I intended to work on outreach towards Jewish communities outside of the traditional Hillel network,” said Samuel Cross, a rising junior and Hillels of Memphis member at Rhodes College in Memphis.
“Hillel tends to be super Euro-centric, and my goal is to reach out to other Jewish communities that are rich in tradition and culture but have begun drifting away from the more mainstream Ashkenazi/Sephardic traditions that we think of. Examples include the population of Beta Israel in Ethiopia, Bene Israel in India, and Central and South American Jews. I want to find ways to bring these communities in and facilitate a closer link between groups and hard-to-reach students.”
This thoughtful response earned Samuel a seat on the Hillel International Student Cabinet, with his term beginning in July. For people who know Samuel, this exciting news should come as no surprise, as he has always demonstrated a tendency to be outgoing in his Jewish involvement.
Raised by Kerry and Brian Cross, Samuel and his younger brother grew up in Griffin, Georgia, a small town in rural Georgia with a very small Jewish population. However, Samuel’s parents made an active effort to give their children access to a Jewish education.
“My parents took me to synagogue (Congregation B’nai Israel in Fayetteville, GA) every week for Sunday school and weekly Hebrew school on Wednesdays. It was a huge part of my life at that point,” he said. “The congregation was about an hour’s drive away from where I lived, so it was a real endeavor to go there and resulted in many late nights over the years, but my parents were consistent in making it happen and I am thankful for that.”
By the time Samuel began looking at potential colleges, he knew that he wanted a school that offered rich Jewish experiences.
“I didn’t have a strong social connection to my Jewish identity due to growing up in an area with relatively few Jewish peers. When college came around, I remember looking at various schools and thinking that some leaned too heavily on Judaism while others had a relatively weak Jewish population, and neither of those options fit with what I wanted,” said Samuel.
“Then, I came across Rhodes and saw that the school offered a nice, personal connection with a growing Jewish community. There is an active push at Rhodes to increase religious diversity on campus, and I saw an opportunity to get involved and find a connection for myself in a way that I couldn’t elsewhere. I thought Rhodes would be a great fit and it absolutely has been.”
“I saw that Rhodes had a scholarship, the Jewish Community Fellowship, so I ended up asking a few questions about the scholarship with Hillels of Memphis Director Sophie Bloch, and eventually, that turned into discussing Hillel at Rhodes. Immediately showing up and having students actively reach out to me and build connections was also very nice.”
The Jewish Community Fellowship is an exclusive college scholarship created from a partnership between Memphis Jewish Federation and Rhodes College which requires that students be involved with Jewish leadership both within Rhodes and the larger Memphis Jewish community. Each year, five $10,000 merit-based scholarships, each renewable for 3 years for a total of $40,000 per student are available for qualifying Rhodes College students. Fellows aim to bring the Jewish community into events and pull Jewish students out into the community, and Samuel is a proud Fellow himself.
It was through his connection to Hillel that Samuel learned about the possibility of sitting in a leadership position at the national level, almost hidden at the bottom of an email.
“I saw a small ad about an application for the Hillel International Student Cabinet and I didn’t think that I would get it because of the nature of them only accepting very competitive students, and certainly from much more widely recognized schools with larger Jewish communities. But I threw my hat in, wrote a few essays, and was invited to interview. It was a nice surprise when I was accepted.”
The same week that Samuel received the acceptance, he was also elected President of VOICES, Rhodes College’s multicultural organization on campus.
“Samuel has played an integral role in Rhodes Hillel during his time on campus these last few years,” said Hillels of Memphis Director Sophie Bloch. “He is a familiar face to his peers and doesn’t hesitate to step up into leadership roles as a Jewish Community Fellow and board member of Rhodes Hillel. We are so proud that Samuel also represents Hillel and the Jewish student population in other student groups and councils on campus, ensuring that Jewish students have a voice that is heard by other students, faculty, and the administration alike.”
As a busy college student, Samuel hasn’t yet mapped out what a post-college future looks like. “I’m interested in looking along the lines of diplomacy, international affairs, or international work of some sort, and want to continue reaching out to communities and work on providing representation to under-represented groups,” said Samuel.
There is no doubt that Samuel is finding ways to make his time in Memphis impactful, and his drive to help connect communities is very admirable. He is sure to do a fantastic job representing Rhodes College and Hillels of Memphis in the 2022-2023 Hillel International Student Cabinet.