Soul stories: The blessing of informal education

by Anna Weinstein
Engagement Associate, Metro Chicago Hillel

Anna's Birthright group at Masada

Overnight, I gave birth to 46 students. Somewhere between standing backward on the twisting and turning Birthright bus-without experiencing my typical car sickness-while taking roll call and passing my hand sanitizer to my germaphobic students for the 100th time, I realized I had become a Jewish mother. I was multi-tasking, focusing only on them, and exhorting everyone to stay hydrated.

"Why do I need to wear a hat?" they asked.    

"Because "mom" said so!" I joked.  

Until our return flight landed safely in Chicago and I accumulated a few nights of sleep, I was not able to digest the entirety of the beautiful experience my students and I just had. After a few days, my co-leader and I began receiving texts, emails, and calls from our students. Hearing how the trip impacted them and made them more committed to their Jewish identities super-charged my confidence in the future of the Jewish people. I know our students will one day become leaders in our community and in our world.

When I asked the students which activity or discussion was most interesting to them, most immediately named one activity during Shabbat. Students had the opportunity to sit in a circle and individually share a story of their "Jewish journeys" from birth until present.  I felt that this activity was the turning point of our trip. The students were listening on the edge of their seats as their peers made themselves vulnerable, revealing their personal stories to the group. Even after the session ended, the stories continued throughout the rest of the trip and new bonds were forged.

This is the blessing of informal education. This is why I love working for Hillel. Over the past semester, I have had the privilege of participating in Engage2Educate, a Hillel International fellowship to train Hillel professionals in leading Jewish learning and conversations. An E2E teaching that has resonated with me and sprang to life through interacting with my Birthright students was this concept of soul stories. Soul stories are personal truths that reveal the whole of who you are (versus an "ego story" which spins facts, and crafts a person into someone he or she is not).

When my students shared touching soul stories during this Shabbat activity, like Holocaust-surviving grandparents making new lives for themselves in Israel or the challenges of growing up in an interfaith family, they become each other's teachers. The power of the informal educational environment of Birthright is that students learn from listening to each other, rather than simply reading stories about Israel or Judaism from a textbook. On Birthright, learning comes to life. Students physically stand on the border of Gaza and together reflect on what peace means. Students pick an organic Israeli strawberry from the shrub and taste the importance of making the desert bloom. Students pray in a synagogue 6,200 miles from their homes yet still join in the same familiar melody as "Oseh Shalom" echoes from the bima. 

Birthright serves as a model for how I want to approach Jewish education on my campus moving forward. If we treat every potential Jewish experience with the creativity, intimacy, and excitement that we do for Birthright, we will undoubtedly help create an amazingly vibrant Jewish campus community.

So, next time I have an urge to photocopy a passage from the week's parsha for a lunch and learn, I will pause and remember the power of my students' soul stories on Birthright and rethink how to make those words spring from the page and come to life.

Personal stories of lives impacted by the opportunities offered through JUF's Israel Education Center.... Read More

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