By Neil Rubin
ST. LOUIS (JTA) — Meet 22-year-old Jeremy Moskowitz, the poster child for what Hillel hopes will be a revolution in campus Jewish life. The catch: He didn’t spend much time at Hillel during his four years at Duke University.
Moskowitz attended Jewish day school before college, but chose Duke in part because it was “less Jewish.” Once on campus, he stayed away from Hillel except for a few Shabbat dinners, instead throwing himself into Greek life as a leader of the AEPi chapter there.
But a Hillel staffer challenged him to reach out to students uninvolved or little involved in Jewish life. By his senior year he had agreed to serve as a Hillel Peer Network engagement intern, a key role in the international campus organization’s thrust to use students not very involved in Hillel to reach other students not very involved with Hillel — with programs having little if any overt connection to Hillel.
In Moskowitz’s case, this meant building his own 12-by-12 sukkah and inviting 28 people over for a meal, and hosting a Passover seder for 73 fellow students — Jews and non-Jews — in his backyard, not to mention cooking 80 or so matzah balls and creating his own hagaddah that included photos, jokes, traditional prayers and Mad Libs (Hillel provided kosher chicken and seder plates).
“A friend called her mom after and said, ‘You’ll never guess where I just was. I was at a Passover seder,” Moskowitz says with a grin while taking a break from last week’s Hillel Institute, a gathering at Washington University here of about 1,000 Hillel professionals, student leaders and guests.
For Moskowitz, the conference was the star of a post-graduation yearlong stint as the Bronfman fellow at Hillel’s Schusterman International Center, the operation’s headquarters in Washington, where he will serve as an assistant to Hillel President Wayne Firestone, learning the ins and outs of running a high-profile international organization based in the nation’s capital.
For the wider Hillel movement, the gathering in St. Louis served as a rollout venue for a new five-year strategic plan that the organization’s board approved in May. The plan, pushed by Firestone, looks to build on the work of Moskowitz and the other 1,200 peer outreach interns on 118 campuses — and moves further away from the traditional model of focusing primarily on improving programming inside the walls of campus Hillels for the most Jewishly engaged students.
It has an ambitious mandate: The 800-plus Hillel professionals active to varying degrees on more than 500 campuses are now supposed to “engage” 70 percent of identified campus Jewish students, having “meaningful” interactions with 40 percent of them and turn 20 percent of them into Jewish leaders.
“Jews are leaders all over campus, but we had to come back to teach them about what it means to be Jewish,” says the low-key Firestone, who can rattle off statistics one moment while retelling stories of a student’s profound shift in Jewish identity the next.
Speaking of students like Moskowitz, Firestone adds, “When we get them to talk about and understand what it means to be Jewish, we have a force multiplier. We think about them as ‘prosumers,’ not just people we are servicing but people who are building communities.”
The goal is being implemented by retraining staff, putting senior Jewish educators on some key campuses, putting Israeli shlichim, or envoys, on others and injecting a mantra of engagement into all things Hillel. Costs for the effort remain elusive, and privately some staffers worry about the new thrust sapping resources from existing programs as well as how their results will be measured. Nonetheless, it is taking root and Hillel has reams of statistics, studies and plans that it says shows the push is worthwhile.
Some in the Jewish world are taking note. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spent two days at the conference in St. Louis to study how the engagement effort could help his movement.
“What everyone sees at Hillel is an incredibly smart, transformative process to literally re-create a whole different kind of campus Jewish life,” Jacobs told JTA. “It’s really remarkable to watch, certainly for someone in the midst of our own refocusing and realignment.”
Also taking notice is the University of Toronto. Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative has been adapted campus-wide by the university’s president, David Naylor. The push fosters conversations around “practical and existential topics” such as politics, social change, biology and God.
Launched last year on 13 campuses, the initiative has involved 72 fellows building relationships with 3,574 students, according to Hillel.
The engagement agenda began in earnest in 2008 when the Jim Joseph Foundation gave Hillel $10.7 million that was used in part to create 10 senior Jewish educator positions on various campuses. They set to work with 12 campus entrepreneur interns — students whose goal was to speak one on one with their peers about where they might fit into Jewish life offerings on campus.
By Hillel’s calculations, those educators and interns took part in a combined 746 personal encounters with students in one year. About a third of the students said they never or rarely went to the Hillel building.
“The No. 1 reason students told us they didn’t participate in Hillel was that they didn’t know anyone who was going to be there or didn’t think they’d like the people there,” said Graham Hoffman, Hillel’s associate vice president of strategy. “By cultivating relationships with these people we can overcome that.”
To figure out how to push forward with its new vision, Hillel hired the Monitor Institute, the consulting firm that helped Teach for America plot a blueprint for achieving its goals. Even with a well-researched plan, implementation will not be easy — it requires recruiting, training and retaining staff, says Scott Brown, a Hillel executive vice president.
“We need more investors and resources to do this,” Brown said. “If it’s about relationships and strategies, you need more hands on deck to do all this at a higher level.”
Hillel directors who buy into the concept say the bottom line remains making students comfortable enough to talk about their emerging identities as young adults. That’s what Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says is her focus as the supervisor of the Northwestern University Hillel’s Campus Rabbi & Questions That Matter program and the previous three years as the senior Jewish educator at the Hillel at Tufts University.
“The heart and soul is the relationships,” she said. “People who previously had no reason to care about Judaism or thinking it didn’t have anything for them, once they began to trust me or my interns, their willingness to be open to a new experience was extraordinary.”