A little restructuring

Daniel Libenson

When Daniel Libenson describes his vision to a group, detailing an intricate plan to transform Jewish life on campus, he gets excited. Happily making his pitch with diagrams and figures, explaining how Hillel can more effectively connect students to Jewish life in a lasting, meaningful way, Libenson himself inspires as he illustrates Hillel’s potential to impact Jewish lives.

This year, under Libenson, the Newberger Hillel at the University of Chicago has implemented the first phase of the Jethro Initiative, a four-year model for engaging students in Jewish life as well as facilitating their growth and connection to Jewish life in adulthood. The program and the thought behind it are gaining much attention in the Hillel world and the Jewish community at large.

In a one-on-one conversation, Libenson talked about Newberger’s work with the Jethro Initiative.

Jordan Roth: This is a huge plan, one that—in effect—reinvents Hillel. I’ve heard you talk about putting Hillel’s engagement model into motion—and that’s just your first step. Can you give a rundown of the entire initiative, or is that even possible with its scope? How do you even introduce the Jethro Initiative?

Daniel Libenson: (laughing) I’m still working on my elevator speech. But basically the Jethro Initiative is just the name we’ve given to a process of redesigning Hillel. We call it the Jethro Initiative because it’s based on the story of Jethro in the Torah where Jethro advises Moses to create this pyramidal leadership structure. So the idea is that we need to find a way to have a broad reach and a way to get people more involved. The simplest way to think about it is that we’re just trying to build a Hillel that does two things really, really well. The first thing is to engage students in a process of exploring their Jewish identity. The second step is to help them explore their Jewish identity in increasingly deep ways. So, in a way, the paradigm shift is really to think of Hillel as sort of a four-year curriculum, as opposed to thinking of Hillel as a set of programs that we might do in a given semester.

So is everything that you do a part of this plan now?

Yes and no. I mean everything that we do will become part of this plan. I think there are still things that we do that we haven’t fully figured out how they fit into this plan. So, for example, the Latke-Hamantash Debate we do because it’s an amazing program that we’ve done for a very, very long time, and exactly how it fits into this plan is a question mark. And, we’re thinking about how we can use it better as a means to engage students, how we can use it as a piece of a deepening process as well. So, you know, we’re still working on things like that.

What are some of the ways that you’ve started to carry out the plan just this year?

Well, like I said, one way to look at it is, it’s basically a two-step thing where it’s about engagement, and then it’s about Jewish growth. So this year we’ve focused on the engagement piece. And, in a way, we’re focused on international Hillel’s vision language so that every Jewish student is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. We’re really focused on the every. How would we get to every Jewish student? We’ve got funding for all kinds of engagement tools that would help us do that. We have the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (a national project of Hillel empowering students to network and develop their campus Jewish community). We have a grant from the Covenant Foundation, which has allowed us to hire these part-time artists and scholars that are meant to appeal to a small number of students, but in a deeper way. Then we have a Senior Jewish Educator, whose job it is to infuse Jewish content into these engagement relationships.

So, you know, we’re already moving to a place where last year, I think we would have maybe made meaningful contact with, say, 50 new students, whereas this year we’ve already made meaningful contact with over 200. And it’s only halfway through the year. So, ultimately, there are 700 Jewish students at the University of Chicago and it’s just the beginning, but we’re trying to build the capacity to reach every student. That’s basically been our focus for this year: once we’ve reached every student, or as we reach large numbers, to deepen the Jewish content so that they’re ultimately inspired to explore Jewish life. And that’s our focus right now. We’re starting to look for funding so that next year we can start to implement that second stage, which is about, once you have people that are actively exploring Jewish life, how do you offer experiences that really deepen that connection that ultimately inspires them to make an enduring commitment.

I know that Jethro ultimately has four phases. Would the goal for not next year but the following year be to implement phase three or four of your plan?

It’s not necessarily a year-by-year thing. It’s partly a funding issue and also an issue of solidifying our capacity in different areas. But stages one and two are the most important and they basically form the bedrock of the approach. Stage three is really about leadership training. Not every Jewish student is going to want to be a leader, though we think that many would. And so that’s kind of a higher place in that Jethro pyramid. You have some number and they’re the leaders, and we do want to build that leadership training program. Then stage four is about building the capacity to help people find the next step after college, and that’s very important too.

U of C is a unique school. It’s an intellectual crowd. How could this translate to other campuses? You think of Jethro as a pilot initiative for other schools, right?

I think it’s absolutely transferable. The Jethro methodology has very little to do with the unique characteristics of the U of C. The core idea of the Jethro Initiative is to link people to Jewish exploration and Jewish growth through their interest area. So, at the U of C those interest areas may tend toward the intellectual but at another school they may be more through music or the arts—it doesn’t matter. The idea of the initiative is to link them to deepening Jewish experiences through their interest area.

Do you think this kind of structure is missing at other Hillels? Obviously you’re the only Hillel that’s doing this specific initiative you’re piloting, but do you think that this kind of structure and plan is missing and necessary for all campuses?

I do, if we’re serious about the mission of inspiring every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. Many Hillels are doing incredible things, but no Hillel has a unified strategy that it’s actually implementing to achieve that mission, in part because it requires a new level of resources that most Hillels don’t have. But, I think that many Hillels are doing very well at reaching a large number of students through engagement initiatives, although nobody’s even close to reaching every Jewish student. Some Hillels have very good Jewish growth opportunities, although usually those are seen as one-shot programs as opposed to a four-year sustained curriculum of advancing steps. But no Hillel really combines both very well—so that it’s systematically moving people from a set of engagement experiences through to a Jewish growth structure designed as a four-year process. I think one challenge is that that requires a paradigm shift from what Hillel is in Jewish society. I think Hillel is seen today as kind of an activity center on campuses, but what I’m talking about is transforming Hillel into an educational institution in its own right. And, right now Hillel is funded at the level of an activity center; but Hillel would require the funding at the level of an educational institution to effectively deliver an educational mission.

I’ve heard you touch on that before. You’ve also said that Hillel should become a kind of “university of the Jewish people.” So, does that mean that Hillel becomes an academic center alongside—or in place of—a Jewish studies program at the university? How is this different? What makes it still uniquely Hillel?

No, I don’t see it becoming an academic center. What I mean by education is that it is a transformative experience over time that enables someone to act in the world differently than before. So, the idea is that the education that we offer will mostly be experiential, not academic. There’ll be some aspects of it that may be intellectual. There may be some classes, but that’s not the focus. The focus is experiences, relationships, conversations—all of which are oriented toward deepening people’s understanding of what it might mean to them to be Jewish in their adult life. And so the hope is that by the time they leave us four years later, they have the capacity to envision an adult Jewish life for themselves and actually live that life, because they know enough about how to bring it about.

Do you think your sense of engagement is different from other Hillels’?

I think often when Hillel talks about engagement it’s about giving people positive Jewish experiences and getting them to do something Jewish. When I’m talking about engagement, I’m talking about moving someone from a perspective in which they’re basically not interested in exploring Jewish life to a point where they actively are interested in exploring Jewish life. And that process might take a year or two years. I don’t think about an engagement program; I think about an engagement year, where the goal is that the person is now actively seeking, and if we didn’t publicize stuff then they would be knocking on our door to find out what’s going on—they’re actively interested.

The way we think both engagement and Jewish growth will be most effective is through relationships, not through programs. So that doesn’t mean we’re not going to do programs. Of course we will. And we believe programs are important as part of an ongoing experience. But we’re really focused on being able to link every student to one or more mentors who will help them, just have lots of conversations with them. Those mentors may include other students, they definitely include our staff, and they’ll hopefully include volunteers from the community who can help students imagine what a Jewish adult life might look like. And we think that if we can link those students with mentors who share their interests—like somebody who has a job that the student aspires to have or somebody with whom students will be very interested in having those mentorships—then that would be a very good way to guide students to the right experience for them and also be a very powerful experience in its own right.

What’s on tap for the next phase?

In terms of envisioning what this process of Jewish growth looks like, we’ve got a lot of things on the drawing board for that, but three are sort of in an advanced stage: One is this idea of creating a mentor program where we would train volunteers from the community to mentor students. Number two is what we call a monthly mega-Shabbat, a community experience that we can design to be an incredible Shabbat experience that’s eye-opening, educational, and fun, as opposed to a weekly Shabbat dinner that doesn’t have a lot of programmatic content to it. And third, we’re working to have what we call a thinker-in-residence program where we bring the leading thinkers of today, the most exciting thinkers in Jewish life, to give a public talk but also spend a weekend or even a full week interfacing with students one-on-one or in small groups to give students an idea of how Jewish ideas can be exciting, and that it’s not just for kids. Ultimately, I think one of the challenges we have to face is that students think Judaism is just for kids. And we have four years to convince them that it’s really something for adults.

For more information and materials on the Jethro Initiative contact Newberger Hillel Center at or (773) 752-1127.

The Newberger Hillel is a division of The Hillels of Illinois, a partner in serving our community, supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and Hillel:  The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Posted: 3/6/2009 10:59:50 AM

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