By Jacob Berkman
This fall, nine Hillel outposts across North America started testing out whether Jewish organizations can become more relevant by developing a radically “user-centric” mindset and then building all of their other institutional priorities, structures and communication in support of that mindset.
These Hillels – from universities large and small, public and private, commuter and residential, and of varying size of staff and budget – are the first cohort of the Campus Leadership Impact (CLI) Platform, an intensive two-year training in the methodology and strategies of Design Thinking.
CLI is the first project launched by the Jewish Design Initiative (JDI), an independent umbrella organization founded by Rabbi Yonah Schiller aimed at developing Design Thinking platforms across the Jewish organizational landscape.
Schiller developed the CLI Platform in partnership with CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and a national foundation in response to persistent interest from other Hillels that saw Tulane Hillel increase its participation by 230 percent and more than triple its annual budget over the past seven years.
Jewish students make up more than 30 percent of Tulane’s student body, yet in 2008 the Hillel there could barely get 100 students to attend even its largest events. So its staff rethought their operations from the ground up, and dedicated Tulane Hillel to putting students at the center of everything they do: They listened to students express diverse interests, passion and identities, and with minor exceptions, charged Tulane’s students with planning and driving all of Hillel’s programs – with staff providing support, mentorship and coaching.
Today, Tulane Hillel looks and operates completely differently than that of 2008. Its high impact entrepreneurial leadership program now has some 335 student members, representing over 10% of the Jewish student body.
And its participants and leadership have transformed their Hillel into an inclusive and dynamic center for a broad cross-section of campus life by enfranchising students who would typically stay far away from Hillel.
“We had become accustomed to sitting together as professionals and stakeholders and telling students what they needed for a meaningful Jewish campus experience,” Schiller said. “But we realized you can’t dictate to people what they should find meaningful or valuable. You have to ask, ‘How can I help you do what you want to do?’”
CLI’s mission is to create a scalable model to help the broader Hillel world, along with other Jewish organizations, understand how they can enact similar change through Design Thinking.
Working with the CLI Platform, participating Hillels will redesign elements of their organizational cultures to become more reflective of their campus demographics. Each participating Hillel must develop a “Design Challenge” to solve. The challenge revolves around building community with a cross-section of students that Hillels do not typically attract.
The participants have begun with an intensive focus on developing a rich understanding of the needs, desires, and interests of their campuses’ broader Jewish and general student population – and will make responding to them a coordinated institutional priority. They will make changes that shift from a top-down programming mindset to one focused on empowering and mentoring students as they design their own initiatives and experiences.
CLI is staffed by Project Director Charlie Buckholtz, a rabbi and writer with over a decade of experience in the Jewish innovation sector. Buckholtz serves as a mentor and facilitator for each cohort staff team and manages CLI’s daily operations. The cohort will also work with Tulane Hillel, CLAL, and trepwise, a New Orleans-based impact consulting firm that specializes in entrepreneurial thinking. Schiller remains closely involved in a senior advisory role.
CLI’s pilot cohort includes: Princeton University, University of Vermont, University of Toronto, University of California San Diego, Boston University, Stanford University, San Francisco Hillel, Towson University, and the University of Southern California.
“Most Jewish community institutions marginalize themselves by falling into a default mode in which relatively homogenous groups of highly affiliated members create, and inform the culture and identity of the institution,” Buckholtz said. “But to build a broad-based Jewish community, you need a representative demographic at the center of the organization, defining its identity and culture. That itself will serve as a magnet for a more diverse range of constituents.”
CLI has created a curriculum that combines universal principles of Design Thinking, best-practices of institutional change-management, experiential workshops, and compelling Jewish texts. The cohort will work through the curriculum during bi-weekly video conferences, monthly webinars, semesterly site-visits, and annual in-person gatherings.
In the end, they will each formulate and execute a detailed implementation plan to build a more vibrant Jewish community.
For institutions like Hillel, success is often defined in terms of raw numbers: how many Jews were engaged, how many times? The CLI Platform will demonstrate that demographic diversity can be an even more telling index of the vitality of Hillel communities.
While it’s early in the process, early indicators are encouraging, according to cohort members.
“Jewish students are thirsty for community that empowers them to realize their potential without imposing on them organizational expectations of what their Jewish lives should look like,” said cohort member UC San Diego Hillel Director Rabbi David Singer. “The CLI platform has been instrumental in helping us to re-orient our work toward this reality. The impact of this shift has been dramatic, already allowing us to dramatically grow and diversify student involvement in less than a year.”
For Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL, CLI’s mission is right for this moment.
“In this period of great cultural and social transformation, driven by the twin forces of technology and globalization, the contours of Jewish identity, the content of Judaism, and the boundaries of Jewish citizenship and community need to be created anew: CLI will be critical in this reimagining,” Kula said.
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