By Dr. Laura Yares
A short while ago, I was speaking to a young Jewish woman who is a couple of years into her career as a Jewish communal professional. We were talking about what connects her to Judaism. “I like community,” she said. “What about community?” I asked her. “What makes community great for you? What role does community play in your life?” “I don’t know.” She said. “No one ever told me I had to think about it.” “So how do you talk about community with the young people you work with?” I asked. “I don’t really,” she said. “I don’t really understand it, so I just tell them to come and join it.”
Too many of our initiatives to engage emerging adults in Jewish life operate on the presumption that to reach peripheral Jews, the professionals who reach out to them must be similarly unengaged in Jewish ideas and in Jewish life. That Jews on the periphery will be put off by anyone closer to the center.
To those who make this assumption, I ask the following question. What, exactly, are we seeking to engage them in? Judaism is not a social club. It’s not an ethnically themed edition of instaquote. What kind of a disservice are we doing to both young Jews and our young Jewish professionals by maintaining this assumption? If we want to engage emerging adults in Jewish life we must be able to offer them something compelling. We must be able to induct them into a conversation that is eternal. We must offer them a way of being in the world that has the capacity to ask deep questions about what it means to be a human being.
That’s why we created the Ezra Fellowship at Hillel International. Named for the biblical scribe who bought the Torah to the people, in the market place, Hillel’s Ezra Fellows similarly seek to engage students in the complexities of our tradition. 15 fellows are selectively recruited every year for their ability to demonstrate Jewish fluency – not just Jewish literacy, but an ability to add their own idioms and accents to foundational Jewish vocabulary. More than that though, they must also be engaging, outgoing, vivacious and approachable. They must possess a healthy balance of engagement and education. One without the other would not allow them to do this work.
Our fellows are early career professionals looking for their first or second job out of college. Through the fellowship, they receive ongoing training in selected methods of experiential Jewish education, and they commit to constantly and consistently engaging in Jewish learning, both at group retreats, online webinars, and skype chavruta. We develop their networks by partnering with some of the most innovative organizations in Jewish life, such as Mechon Hadar and Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish future.
Our fellows are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, secular, and post-denominational. Some of them have day school backgrounds, many don’t. In fact, our most successful applicants to the fellowship tend to have two items on their resume: a background in Jewish camping, and an immersive Israel experience. Their Jewish practice and beliefs span the spectrum, and we encourage them in their diversity and individuality. What unites them is a shared belief that Judaism is deep, complex and compelling, and that they would be doing their students a disservice if they sell them a Judaism that is anything less. College students are not ignorant of complexity. The essential task of determining their own emergent adult identities, with all of its liminality, intersectionality, negotiation and experiment is a crucial element of the college years. And after all, college students come to college because they value and strive after intellectual challenge. If Judaism is going to be relevant to these college students, and if it is going to offer values, traditions, and ways of thinking about the world that can last as they grow and move into new stages of life, then we must be able to show them young, pluralistic role models for whom Judaism is deep, rich and complex as well.
Applicants for Ezra Fellows at the University of Arizona, Arizona State, California Irving, Indiana, Johns Hopkins, Kansas, Michigan, Penn State, Stanford, Towson and Vermont Hillels are now open! Visit www.hillel.org/jewish/jewish-education/ezra-fellowship for more information and to apply.
Dr. Laura Yares is the Director of Educational Research and Innovation at Hillel International, and the Program Director for the Ezra Fellowship. She also teaches in the M.A. program in Experiential Education and Cultural Arts at the George Washington University.