Building Jewish relationships at New York University.
As an American, I feel the trends of personalization taking over my life. My radio plays music exactly to my preference and my Internet suggests products “that I may like.” Yet as Jew, I have never had this feeling of personalization. Why can’t I have my Judaism “my way”? Well, this is exactly the void that Hillel's Campus Entrepreneurship Initiative (CEI)
is filling for students on campuses nationwide.
Hillel seeks to engage Jewish students who are not active in Jewish campus life by meeting them where they are Jewishly. As a CEI intern at the University of Pennsylvania, my job is to foster meaningful yet comfortable peer-to-peer conversations. In the past year I have built relationships among 60 previously uninvolved Jewish students of all backgrounds, providing opportunities for them to explore and embrace their Judaism. I specifically focused on Reform Jews, but truthfully my interactions with them have not differed much from those with uninvolved Jews of other denominations or observance levels, who are basically looking for an accessible, meaningful, and fun way to reconnect with Judaism.
Before I started, I thought that building Jewish relationships with inactive Jews would be a daunting task. It’s not. Many Jewish students love the idea of embracing their Judaism, once they are invited to personalize it.
Here’s how it works: I, as a fellow student, connect with an unengaged Jew on his/her terms and his/her comfort level. I try to introduce Jewish topics naturally into conversation and get a feel for how far a person is willing to go. For example, a discussion about the differences between being at home and at college led to a conversation about how being Jewish is very different when a student is on his or her own. In a given week this year, I also discussed famous Jewish athletes with a member of my fraternity and whether God belief is required in Judaism with a classmate—topics that were personally very meaningful to these students. In another instance, after talking about intermarriage, the person I engaged sought me out a week later to continue the conversation.
Every CEI intern also tailors a year-long initiative to the interests of those he/she engages. Since Israel has been an overriding topic of conversation among uninvolved Reform Jews at UPenn, I organized Israel education and awareness events. One of the best experiences was co-hosting (with other CEI networks) a dinner in which Jewish students who’d expressed interest in Israel-based conversations got to mingle with nine visiting Israeli college students. As the Americans and Israelis compared and contrasted their college experiences, they discovered that overall—regardless of different experiences such as the Israelis’ mandatory pre-college military service—the students themselves had a lot in common. By the evening’s end, both the Americans and the Israelis had made new friends, uninvolved Jewish students began thinking more about Israeli issues, and one UPenn student was inspired to pursue a Birthright Israel trip.
Responding to the Boycott Divest Sanction conference held on Penn’s campus, I also hosted an interfaith and interdenominational student dinner and discussion on the relationship between the United States and Israel. Attendees continued the conversations after the event, and one Jewish participant later told me that the experience led him to realize that being educated is the best way to defend Israel. He has since researched Israeli policy and history in order to become a more informed Jew.
As a CEI intern, I have learned that Jewish conversations do not necessarily need to be about Judaism, and that is one of the key reasons why this program is successful. When students do not feel “forced” to converse only about Judaism, they are more likely to welcome the encounter and the opportunity for introspection it provides. Sometimes conversations about life, philosophy, and integrity can all involve Jewish concepts indirectly. For example, when talking about summer plans with a friend, the conversation casually moved to a discussion of what it means to be “successful.” This led us to the notion that self-evaluation is a profoundly Jewish ideal which we contemplate every year during Yom Kippur. We agreed that money is not the ultimate indicator of success; many other things, including family, personal satisfaction, and being a just person, are far more important.
When I engage uninvolved college students by exploring issues that matter to them, what may follow is a reconception of Jewish identity they can build upon for the rest of their lives.
— Andrew Abrams, sophomore, University of Pennsylvania and member, Congregation M'kor Shalom, Cherry Hill, NJ
Inside Hillel's Entrepreneurs Initiative
Over the past four years, largely because of Hillel's Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (CEI), 900 trained and employed student interns have built 35,000 relationships with uninvolved Jewish peers on 70+ campuses, helping them explore and connect to Jewish life on their own terms.
This relationship-based, peer-to-peer approach doesn’t advocate any particular way of being Jewish or the expectation to “come to Hillel.” Instead, the student interns, mentored by Hillel educators of diverse Jewish backgrounds, explore, share stories, ask questions, and celebrate Jewish life with other students. Jewish experiences range from Shabbat and holiday celebrations in dorms and off-campus apartments to women’s spirituality circles, Jewish manhood discussions, Jewish-Black dialogue groups, and social justice trips—all of which the interns create based on the interests and common themes they hear when engaging their peers. Formerly uninvolved students are now reporting involvement in Jewish activities in greater numbers, and the CEI interns are honing their Jewish leadership skills, for now and for the future.
Through a Hillel-URJ CEI collaboration, Reform interns are currently reaching uninvolved students from Reform backgrounds at Cornell University, University of Texas, and University of Pennsylvania. In 2012–13 three schools will be added: University of Maryland, Rutgers University, and University of Southern California. And Hillel’s peer-to-peer engagement initiative (CEI and a smaller-scaled version, Peer Network) is expanding to 56 campuses in 2012–13.
For more information: hillel.org.