There is one simple rule to attract college students: If you feed them, they will come.
But making them stay? That's another matter completely, and it's a question that weighs especially on the mind of Rabbi Rogerio Cukierman, executive director of Illini Hillel at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).
Entering his second year in the position, Cukierman has been making a concerted effort to do more than just strengthen the already program-heavy environment of his Hillel.
"For us to really count the students we reach, we need to know them," he said, articulating a shift in Hillel's philosophy that began five years ago. Central to this new perspective is that a major goal of programming is relationship building. One could even look at programming as an "excuse" to pursue these connections.
However, there is a limit to how much a professional staff can do. For all their energy, they aren't students and don't have the networks and friendships that come from attending classes, working in student organizations, joining Greek life, etc. The hard truth is that relationship building is something that happens most effectively between students and other students. Even a great staff is only as effective as the student leaders who support it.
So in classic Jewish fashion, Illini Hillel decided a little bit of exile was in order. A student leadership retreat was held on Labor Day, at sun-dappled Allerton Park about 45 minutes outside of campus. Hillel's staff, student board, leaders of the minyanim (quorum of 10 required for prayer), and Israel activists spent the day brainstorming, talking, and planning creative solutions to fill the lives of Jewish students at UIUC with more than Shabbat brisket or free pizza.
"We need your help to reach out to the broader student population and to envision what this Hillel is going to become in the next 2-to-5 years," the students were told in an opening address. Many of the activities that took place involved students working in small groups and picking apart what works at Hillel, what doesn't work, and what their hopes for its future are.
"It's a cool challenge," said Elana Weiner-Kaplow, an Israel intern, describing the challenge of keeping successful programming running strong while evaluating how the new crop of student leaders can take their own programming ideas off the drawing board.
Many talked about keeping Hillel an inclusive and welcoming place for students.
"I want to see Hillel reach out to the community," said Tzedek VP Gideon Horberg. "We could make at least ten times the difference my hometown Jewish youth group made."
Engagement Coordinator Carly Froomkin echoed this sentiment, but suggested that student leadership also reach out to niche populations of Jewish students, suggesting that smaller programs directed at specific groups could bring-in students not being served by flagship events like Shabbat dinners or welcome-week barbecues.
The discussions amongst students and staff during the retreat reflected the balancing act that institutions like Illini Hillel must make between programs and relationship building, avoiding the extremes of either turning Hillel into a solely programming-focused location or tossing all programming in favor of relationship building.
Cukierman summarized the approach Illini Hillel pursues: "It's a balance. We want to acknowledge the tangible gains that students get from programming, but we also don't want these events to overpower the connections and relationships that grow and sustain our Hillel. It's not all events, and not all programming. It's about engaging our students."
Students and staff alike hope that old rule of attracting college students will change in the coming year. They hope for a new rule: If you engage students, they will come, and grow, and learn-and of course, still eat.
The Hillels of Illinois, a partner in serving our community, is supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Danny Wicentowski is a senior studying journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the web editor of The Daily Illini, the school's student newspaper.