By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
One of the most powerful moments for me in college was going to Friday night services and dinner as a freshman at Hillel. I looked around the building, and noticed that it was filled entirely – and only – with college students. For the first time in my life, I realized, my peers were creating the Shabbat space, from start to finish. The services were led by students, announcements made by a student, Kiddush and singing – all led by students.
A few years later, I was a student leader at Hillel. In that position, I developed a close relationship with the staff. But I was still curious: why was the staff absent in the very moment the Hillel was most full? Their response stuck with me for a long time: We intentionally don’t come on Shabbat so students realize they don’t need us to make Shabbat happen. These staff served as mentors for me; I valued their input and learned a tremendous amount about how to run an organization from them. But this was the most important lesson I took: sometimes the staff needs to step out of the way, and let people who never thought they could do something step up and try it.
I have been reminded of that lesson while serving as faculty for the training of the Ezra Fellows, the cadre of Hillel engagement professional now at 30+ campuses around the country. These fellows are not your typical engagement professional – they are chosen for their ability to communicate deep Jewish content as part of the engagement strategy. Some of them come from day school backgrounds, others were turned on to Jewish engagement later in life. But all of them share a passion for Jewish learning and education as a substantive way to engage students in Jewish life.
What struck me about working with these professionals in our intensive 2-day seminars was their desire to empower – and then step out of the way – of the students. This past August, I was witness to an intensive debate about whether or not to help lead Shabbat services, conscious of the pros and cons of being a facilitator of an experience that students are meant to see as their own.
One of the main differences between these professionals and the ones I worked with years ago as a student is their age. While the staff at Harvard Hillel in the 1990s served as mentors, these Ezra Fellows can role model as peers. Just a few years older than the students they serve, they can model a sense that not only previous generations care about Jewish content, but “young people” value it as well. That is something that for all the benefits I had as a student at a wonderful Hillel, I never had.
These fellows are on the front lines of the most important question facing Jewish college student engagement: how can we both teach people content they don’t have access to, and also let them form their own Jewish community by stepping out of the way? The peer education model, offered for the first time by Hillel, is a new approach to solving this problem, and one that will be exciting to watch as it grows.
The Ezra Fellowship is supported in part by the Maimonides Fund.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar. He is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights, 2010). Watch a video of his talk at the Jewish Federations of North America, in Denver, CO, 2011.