Being a Senior Jewish Educator: The Road to Engagement through Relationship Building

[This post is part 3 of a series on the Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative; the previous posts can be found here.]

by Ben Berger

It was 35 degrees outside as Jordan, a tank-top clad Campus Entrepreneur Intern (CEI), sat across from me to discuss the “Jewish Conversation” that he would lead. Not the stereotypical image of an engaged Hillel student, in many ways, Jordan is a typical Big Ten Jewish student from the East Coast, coming to Ohio State to take full advantage of the sports and Greek culture, while getting an education on the side. I have also learned that hidden beneath his tank-top façade, Jordan, and his friends, have an often-untapped capacity for self-reflection, and a deep desire to understand the big and not-so big questions of their lives.

As part of his job as a CEI intern at Ohio State, Jordan is tasked with building relationships with 60 peers uninvolved in Jewish life on campus, in order to connect them to relevant Jewish experiences. And in my job as the Senior Jewish Educator at Ohio State I become a part of these networked peers, thus helping a diverse array of students on the spectrum of Jewish engagement, celebrate, contextualize, struggle and bring Jewish meaning to all sorts of challenges and joys that they experience. Mostly, I engage them in the conversation of the Jewish people and inspire them through Jewish education to continue that engagement beyond their college years.

Jordan is one of 12 CEI interns at Ohio State; I learn one-on-one with each of them and help them learn to facilitate Jewish conversations with their peers. As we met, Jordan struggled to generate a topic in which he would engage his fellow CEI interns and friends. “How about high holidays?” he tried, “They seem pretty important.”

I responded, “Do you have any interest in talking about the importance of high holidays for an hour?” Not surprisingly, neither he, nor I, did.

“So what are you passionate about?” I asked. After a moment of internal struggle, he responded enthusiastically “my family.”

With that response, we spent the next hour exploring what family means to him, what brings his family together and what can pull them apart. He expressed a fierce sense of responsibility toward his family and a real concern about making them proud and not ashamed of his actions. We then organized his disparate thoughts and stories about what made his family a family into three categories of shared memory, experience and responsibility.

I asked him how this new understanding of his family might relate to the Jewish people. Without script, he responded, “all of these things that my family shares are what the Jewish people share just on a bigger scale.” That realization opened the door for us to delve into Jewish texts that added content to his initial thought and helped to frame the conversation.

In the coming weeks he will lead this same conversation for his fellow CEI interns, for his friends over a meal or coffee and then in a more formal environment in which he and his fellow interns will simultaneously engage hundreds of students with which they’ve built relationships.

My meeting with Jordan is a glimpse into the work of a Hillel Senior Jewish Educator. Realizing that students themselves are most effective at connecting to other students, the Senior Jewish Educators seek to harness the power of these engagement interns’ networks to bring content to them. Jordan and his fellow interns’ networks have allowed me to connect with and teach students in the business, law and medical programs, environmental activists, fraternities and sororities and in campus interfaith circles. We meet and learn together in coffee shops, classrooms, bars and apartments.

I privilege “Jewish Conversation” as one of my content delivery systems, where I gather groups of students and prepare them to lead conversations for their peers about the issues that are most relevant to their lives. I teach students that there are three essential elements of a Jewish conversation and that each of them are capable of leading a Jewish conversation.

The three parts are Etzem – self, Chaver – partner(s), and Torah – substance. Etzem asks them to draw on the sources of their lives – their stories, their questions, their fears and their joys. Chaver requires them to draw out their friends with probing questions, a listening ear and a genuine interest in the voices of their peers. Torah demands that they call on the stories and texts of our people, as well as the texts of their lives, the songs and films, the words and interests of their generation. Together we develop these conversations so they can then effectively bring these topics to the many they are connecting with on campus.

At OSU Hillel, this methodology has become central to our work. Many Jewish student leaders, not just our engagement interns, are leading Jewish conversations with friends in locations that they most frequent. We have begun to build a robust culture where hundreds are engaged by peers in Jewish Conversation.

Working with emerging adults at OSU for the past four years has led me to two realizations. First, students themselves are most effective at building and sustaining networks for engagement. They will always be better than staff at engaging their peers. Second, students are deeply, even if only subconsciously, concerned with personal meaning-making and self-development. Hillel educators and other staff are an essential part of the engagement puzzle to provide depth and support along this journey. We have the responsibility to give students the tools to make this meaning-making a conscious effort, support the building of their Jewish networks and empower them to be change agents among their peers.

Rabbi Ben Berger is the Senior Jewish Educator at The Ohio State University Hillel and was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. To read more about Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educator/Campus Entrepreneur Initiative read the case study by the Monitor Institute, Leveraging Social Networks for Student Engagement, and the Summative Evaluation Report based on research conducted by Research Success Technologies and Ukeles Associates.