Coffee and Customization: Bringing Jewish Learning to Generation Z

By Hannah N. Rosenberg

If there’s one thing that we know about Gen Z, it’s that they have grown up in a customized world. Whether it’s a no whip, pumpkin spice, extra hot, non-fat latte or one-click shopping with Amazon, this generation of college students know a world in which information and services can be tailor-made to fit their needs and interests.

This poses a challenge for those of us in the business of Jewish education. For me, my formal Jewish education in Hebrew school and in the classroom felt forced and inauthentic. When I became a Hillel professional, I knew I’d approach things differently to engage students in substantial Jewish conversations.

What I’ve learned from pursuing this over the past three years at Franklin and Marshall College Hillel is if I’m going to provide customized Jewish experiences, I need a lot of Torah in my back pocket.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t always feel comfortable talking Torah in casual conversations. It wasn’t until I became as an Ezra Fellow, a fellowship with Hillel International designed to infuse engagement with Jewish learning, that I was exposed to experiential Jewish learning for the first time and felt proud to share my knowledge with others.

With the support of the Ezra Fellowship, I prepared myself in a several ways: I explored holidays and social justice at Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian adult learning community in New York City; wrestled with Talmud at Pardes Institute for Jewish Learning; video chatted weekly with my chevrutas through Project Zug, an online partner learning forum; and learned from and was supported by my cohort of Ezra Fellows. These conferences and retreats and seminars all served to help me create evolving, authentic connections to my Judaism.

Then came another challenge. What do I do with all this knowledge?

For the past two years, I experimented with ways to infuse Jewish learning into my Hillel community. I attempted text study in the sukkah and source sheets at student leadership retreats, but my students never genuinely connected to it.

After a few coffee dates with students, I realized what we needed. When I encounter a text or idea during my Ezra Fellowship learning, I think of a student to connect this new piece of knowledge with and I share it with them. After discussing descriptions in the Torah of G-d’s clothing at Mechon Hadar, I recalled a past conversation with a student and reached out to them and discussed further gender identity. After an exciting Project Zug conversation, I explored feminism in the Torah with another student. By strategically pairing Jewish knowledge with specific students, I can personalize their own connection with Judaism.

Jessie Simon is a great example.

When thinking about Yom Kippur on campus this year, it was obvious that Jessie should be involved in our holiday programming. Jessie spent her summer teaching meditation to inner-city youth and I knew she was interested in leading something at Hillel. So Jessie and I scheduled one of those 1:1 coffee dates Hillel has become famous for, and I gathered my resources, praying I wouldn’t spill my latte on the Mishneh Torah.

Meeting with Jessie at our local coffee shop, we examined the central theme of teshuvah, or repentance. I brought a text to guide our conversation and we discussed how our actions impact others, whether unintentional or deliberate. Because I know Jessie and what would resonate with her, I tailored our learning and conversation with her needs and interests.

On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the fireplace in the Hillel living room was crackling, and we could hear the echo of the football game across the street. Jessie encouraged us to get comfortable and close our eyes. Many sat on the floor or lounged across the couches. She asked everyone to imagine times where we were stressed or angry and hurt someone. She proposed that we forgive ourselves, or at least acknowledge the path of forgiveness, linking modern meditation with the teachings of teshuvah and understanding our shortcomings. We opened our eyes and felt restored.

This customized, informal Jewish learning experience is a key method to engage with students in today’s Generation Z. At F&M’s campus with 300 Jewish students, it’s not that hard to know most Jewish students and talk with them about their majors or their classes. The challenge is finding every student’s connection with Judaism and understanding how I can provide the tools and resources for their relationship to grow.

Instead of attempting to go on 300 coffee dates with every Jewish student, I hope rather to inspire students like Jessie to deeply explore Jewish learning that interests them, so that they can then to go out on their own and share their enthusiasm with others.

Because customization can only begin by knowing the customer.

Hannah N. Rosenberg is the assistant director of the Klehr Center for Jewish Life at Franklin & Marshall College, and a Hillel International Ezra Fellow. The Ezra Fellowship is supported in part by the Maimonides Fund.

(Applications are open for the next cohort of the Ezra Fellowship, now part of Hillel International’s Springboard Fellowship. Apply today at www.hillel.org/fellowships)