Community in Motion

via WikiMedia Commons

How Hunter Hillel is transforming to meet the needs of commuter students
By Merav Fine Braun

Deborah*, one of my students at Hunter College Hillel, sets her alarm most mornings for 6 a.m. before traveling two hours from Monsey to be on time for her 9 a.m. economics class at Hunter College. She’s not alone.

In New York City, at least 25,000 Jewish students commute to campus, according to the Hillel College Guide, including 60 percent of Hunter College students. The city is their classroom, and that presents both benefits and challenges. We can serve as a training ground for the future leaders of the New York Jewish community if we do our jobs right.

Our students are remarkable in their determination and commitment to their education. They have the farthest commutes in the CUNY system, with some as long as 2.5 hours on buses, trains and even ferries. It is not unheard of for students to travel at least as far as Deborah does – if not farther. They, and the spaces they occupy, are transient: subways, buses, classrooms. This reality poses a challenge – our students have so many priorities that it’s hard for them to feel grounded enough to commit to a community.

Deborah is double majoring in sociology and economics, holding down a part-time job as a Hebrew-school teacher and, on top of all of that, is interning at a small nonprofit located in midtown Manhattan. She puts family commitments and school first, and extracurriculars are a distant second. Yet, her commitment to leadership at Hunter Hillel seemed unwavering at first. As the semester wore on, the stress of the grind of classes, commuting and work became too much to bear. It became clear to me that if she were to stay involved in Jewish life at Hunter College, Hillel would have to meet her on her terms and according to her schedule.

As an experienced campus professional, I’m as guilty as any other of trying to organize student programming around my schedule, my circadian rhythms.

No longer.

What my assistant director, Arielle Braude, and I quickly learned after arriving here in July is that a typical approach to building Jewish life on campus – social events at night, Shabbat dinner at Hillel, educational classes that only meet once a week – wasn’t going to work here.

That became crystal clear for us after we camped out in the student lounge to observe students’ comings and goings and met more than 200 of them within the first seven days of the fall semester to review their schedules and get to know them. This kind of radical listening convinced us of the need to reengineer our Hillel from top to bottom to meet students where they are. After all, that’s what Hillel is all about.

This approach is already paying off, starting with Deborah. Despite her arduous commute, she’s become one of our strongest leaders. She takes her circumstances and makes them work for her Hillel community. But she’s had lingering doubts that she could juggle her responsibilities while remaining active in Hillel.

Commuter students like Deborah with split priorities are less likely to engage in an active community, according to the higher education journal Student Success. Deborah wanted to participate in our inaugural class of the Jewish Learning Fellowship last semester. This 10-week cohort, which started at New York University and was scaled nationwide by Hillel International’s Office of Innovation, typically meets at night at Hillels throughout the country. But if we were to run JLF on that schedule, few students would show.

To make this opportunity available to our students, we had to mix up the playbook. We offered two JLF classes per week, one in the afternoon and one in the early evening. Because of this, Deborah was able to join the afternoon class, which was catered with a free kosher lunch (kosher food options are limited on campus).

Deborah engaged in deep Jewish learning with her peers who became her community. She found mentors. She is asking big questions about life and discussing them through a Jewish lens.

Shabbat is another example of where we’ve chosen to be more flexible. Students aren’t expected to attend Shabbat services and dinner in our space and trek home at 9:30 p.m. or later. And I don’t blame them for not wanting to.

We began encouraging our students to spend Shabbat in their own homes with their peers. By providing our students with a Shabbat across Hunter guide complete with liturgy, songs to sing and a pre-Shabbat checklist, as well as a catered Shabbat meal (or grocery reimbursement, for those who prefer to cook) they recreate the Hillel experience with friends who live nearby. We are with them every step of the way, from planning the mood and décor, to the invite list and follow up with attendees.

Hunter Hillel isn’t limited to our campus. Hunter Hillel is happening all over New York City. Hillel is wherever our students are.

Since September, we have quadrupled our community, serving 450 students to date. But the biggest change isn’t quantifiable: a shift in culture. We have flipped the “typical” Hillel experience on its head and made it mobile, just like our students.

Today’s Hunter students are the leaders of tomorrow. Supporting them on their journey starts with an investment of this city’s scarcest commodity: time. As I watch students like Deborah enrich themselves and our community, I know it’s time well spent.

Merav Fine Braun is the executive director of Hunter College Hillel.

*Deborah’s name is changed for her privacy.