How SF Hillel learned to stop selling and start engaging its students
By Emily Simons
Two years ago, San Francisco Hillel faced a surprising challenge.
Individually and collectively, our Hillel staff received awards and recognition for the quality of our student engagement. But, despite this track record, and having a staff member dedicated to recruiting students for immersive experiences like Birthright Israel, we were seriously struggling to fill a trip.
Our Hillel managed to send a mere 18 students to Israel, roughly a third of the number of students we’d sent the year prior and a quarter of the number we’d sent in the recent past. We wanted to do better. But how?
We began by challenging all of our existing assumptions about our students and the way we engaged them.
We stopped focusing on trip recruitment and instead focused on what we do best – engaging students deeply and meaningfully. In the best tradition of Hillel, we got to know them. We built genuine relationships.
The key to recruiting, we discovered, is not to recruit. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but for us to fill a Birthright Israel trip with Jewish students, we had to stop thinking about how to get bodies in the seats and start thinking about how to better understand the diverse, Jewish student population we serve. We had to truly understand them and what they need at this point in their lives.
As a result, we found we could tailor our trip experience for them and reduce the barriers that made them hesitant to commit to a trip, even one that’s free.
The irony is that by focusing less on meeting our numbers and more on enriching Jewish lives, we surpassed our goals. We recruited two-and-a-half-times as many students as last year, and have students lining up to travel to Israel with us in future semesters.
Jack Weinstock (SFSU ‘20) is one of the students we reached with our new approach.
As SF Hillel’s Immersive Experiences Associate, I met Jack for coffee during Jack’s first week as a student on campus. When we met, I was trying hard at the time to recruit for Birthright Israel, so I pushed the trip. You’ve probably already guessed how that went. Jack politely listened and never set foot in the Hillel building again that semester.
But we stayed in touch, and we grabbed coffee again the following semester. I learned more about Jack’s family and personal life. We slowly developed a real relationship. Gradually, Jack started asking more questions about Israel.
From our conversations, I learned that Jack had been afraid of being rejected for Birthright Israel for not being “Jewish enough.” Jack didn’t say this directly, instead expressing concern about “safety” or “being far from home.”
I have heard this same coded language from many unaffiliated and under-affiliated young Jews. What underlies all of these assertions from students is fear, fear of having to prove their Jewish identity. Like many of our students, Jack couldn’t speak Hebrew and had virtually no experience of Jewish ritual and practices.
But the reality is, this trip was made for students just like Jack. They just need someone they trust to help them understand that.
Jack decided to go on a Birthright Israel trip that I was leading, fell in love with the country and its history, and now sees Israel in a new light. Jack is now a David Project intern with SF Hillel, working with other student groups on allyship with Jewish and Israel communities.
Jack’s story has taught us that Birthright Israel recruitment is all about cultivating meaningful relationships – it’s core engagement work. Engagement is not telling someone “I have an amazing product and you should take it because it will change your life.”
Engagement is about understanding what each unique, diverse, intersectional individual needs in their lives and how can we support them.
One of Birthright Israel’s three stated objectives is “strengthening Jewish identity.” But we’re finding that young Jews often need their own Jewish identities affirmed before they are willing to even go on a trip.
Once we stopped trying to engage our students as potential Birthright Israel participants – sales targets – and instead started engaging them as unique individuals, we were able to use the trip as a vehicle to strengthen their Jewish identities and find new ways to grow Jewishly long after the trip had ended.
And that’s the real goal.
Emily Simons is the immersive experiences associate at San Francisco Hillel, which serves the campuses of San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, University of California Hastings College of the Law, University of California San Francisco and the other undergraduate and graduate schools of San Francisco.