Not a day goes by that I don't appreciate the privilege that it is to work on a college campus and as the executive director of the Newberger Hillel Center at the University of Chicago, I am fortunate several times over.
Our students thrive on intellectual engagement, our faculty have won more Nobel Prizes than any other North American university, and our community is engaged and invested in Jewish life.
Given the context in which we work, we set a high bar for ourselves. Our vision at Hillel is to see that every student is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. And therefore everything we do is geared toward that vision.
We work our vision and mission every day. Our role isn't to segregate the Jewish students from their peers or one type of Jewish student from another. Rather, it's to help them understand that their role as Jewish students is to go out and enrich the world. We can only do that if we help them understand that while they are universally human, there is value to being distinctively Jewish.
What does it take for students (or anyone) to make that enduring commitment to Jewish life? It requires ownership of their Jewish experience. And to make that happen, we expose students to Meaningful Jewish Experiences.
Meaningful Jewish Experience may sound vague—it isn't. MJEs contain at least two, if not three, of the following ingredients to be added with intentionality: Positive Jewish Memory, Jewish Knowledge, Jewish Self-Confidence, Jewish Community, or Peoplehood.
Our goal is to make sure that every experience we offer students can be meaningful. We're meeting students where they are-and at the University of Chicago that is a hyper-intellectually engaging place. World-class faculty, the University President, and local dignitaries have joined us for Shabbat dinners and conversation. And in addition to what Hillel provides independently, we also leverage University events to accomplish our goals:
- When Elie Wiesel came to campus at the invitation of the Institute of Politics and spoke to an overflowing crowd at Rockefeller Chapel, one of our interns held a reflection session afterwards at Hillel for a dozen students, helping them turn a large, impersonal experience in to a smaller, more communal one.
- When we heard that the Law School was bringing Ruth Bader Ginsberg to campus, we reached out to her and invited her come to Hillel first to meet with our student interns and leaders. She said yes and 40 students had nearly an hour or Q & A with her-no speeches.
We have a spectacular building, and because of that, we have a place and multiple spaces where students can experiment with Jewish practice and ideas to find out what's meaningful to them (and what isn't) in a safe and nurturing way. Students may come to a Shabbat dinner, participate in a peer-led text study, simply browsing through our library, lead services, practice their bubbe's chicken soup recipe, read a Jewish magazine and/or talking to someone about an emerging need for faith and/or Gd.
Our ten student interns leverage their networks to bring Jewish opportunities and experiences to their peers all over campus. We are using a relationship management system called REACH to track our work and measure our success. We know 70% of our undergraduate students by name and contact. We know that 40% of our students have had at least two meaningful interactions and experiences over the course of the year.
On June 19th, our UChicago Hillel Birthright Israel trip began ten days of Jewish community, knowledge, self-confidence and positive Jewish memory. That trip will be met by follow-through over the summer and during the coming year to ensure that Birthright is but one meaningful Jewish experience among many that our students take advantage of during their college years.
We have our work cut out for us—the University environment thrives on challenge. We are ready to meet that challenge and help students take ownership of their Jewish experience so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.
Andrea Hoffman is the executive director of Newberger Hillel at the University of Chicago.