Yesterday, I talked about the uncertain future of college Jews in organized Reform Judaism. Now there may be hope, but from Hillel rather than Union for Reform Judaism, whose biennial convention I’m reporting from.
About five years ago, Hillel realized there was a dirth of Jewish life on college campuses. When they asked themselves how best to reach out to students, the answer was obvious: use students.
However, they had their hurdles. At the URJ Biennial, Associate Vice President for Student Engagement at Hiller Jennifer Zwilling told a room of college students and parents of students that Hillel has a stigma it is trying to fight. Students at the Biennial said Hillel was seen as conservatively Jewish, intimidating and hyper-focused on Shabbat services.
Hillel has since worked to counteract that image and simultaneously increase Jewish life on college campuses. Across 39 universities, 933 Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative interns, paid by Hillel, have worked with “senior Jewish educators” with a simple mission: get your Jewish friends, especially your Reform Jewish friends, involved in Judaism on campus.
“The world is flattening. People’s networks are diffuse and out there. It [CEI] builds upon kind of what’s already out there in the general society and to use people’s social networks as the building grounds to create Jewish life for people on their own terms,” Zwilling told New Voices.
Since then, the program has been an unmitigated success, according to Zwilling.
Hillel reports that:
When CEI is present on a campus…
- …greater numbers of students are engaged in Jewish life
- …students with weaker Jewish backgrounds exhibit high levels of Jewish growth
- …those already active in Jewish life become mere effective leaders of Jewish life
- … interns stay involved in Jewish life after the program ends.
A program like this has a lot of promise to move beyond Hillel, Zwilling said. For example, a pilot URJ/Hillel Reform Engagement Intern program hires three interns at a price tag of $3,200 per intern. The interns currently at Cornell University, the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania are charged with making 60 students more involved in Jewish life. 20 of those students have to be Reform.