From Jewish Identity to Jewish Capital

Hillel International’s Ezra Fellowship and our work with Mechon Hadar.

The second cohort of Hillel International Ezra Fellows; photo courtesy Hillel International.
The second cohort of Hillel International Ezra Fellows; photo courtesy Hillel International.

By Laura Yares

Every year, Hillel International recruits and trains new engagement professionals to work on college campuses across the country. Engagement professionals – young adults who are often recent college graduates themselves – take on the task of engaging college students in Jewish life. Whether by meeting a student for a conversation over coffee, ensuring that every student coming into a Shabbat program is welcomed, or taking students to volunteer in social justice work, they strive to connect each student to avenues of Jewish life which speak to their own particular dispositions.

Beginning two years ago, Hillel began to pioneer a new model for its engagement professionals, one which thought about these young adults as more than Jewish concierges. Hillel’s Ezra Fellowship was founded to develop a cadre of engagement professionals who were not only engaging, but were also engaged with their own Judaism. The goal of the fellowship is to develop young Jewish professionals who can provide a role model of a young adult living an engaged Jewish life. Since its first cohort in 2014, the Ezra Fellows initiative has placed 35 fellows on campuses across North America. Named for the biblical scribe who bought the Torah outside, to the water pump in the middle of the market place, Ezra fellows are trained through an extensive fellowship learning program to play the role of a Jewish peer educator on campus.
The pedagogy of Ezra Fellowship training has two core foci. Firstly, the fellows are trained as experiential educators. Through mentoring from academic faculty in the field of experiential Jewish education, and training facilitated by leading practitioners in the field, the fellows are given the beginnings of an educator’s tool kit that allows them to facilitate learning experiences on campus. And secondly – and the topic on which this series of articles will focus – we invest time and resources enabling the fellows to develop their own Jewish selves – not by nebulous speculation on their “identity,” but through a rigorous program of learning that encourages them to constantly develop and refine their own Jewish questions.

The grounding for this particular approach to their Jewish self-exploration comes from the work of sociologists Roger Finke and Kevin Dougherty on the development of religious capital among Protestant seminary students. Finke and Dougherty describe religious capital in terms of both a mastery of, and sense of attachment to a particular religious culture. The “mastery of” refers to the knowledge and familiarity needed to participate in a religious culture. Knowing when to do what and when, and why. But mastery alone would be merely academic. To acquire religious capital requires that the acquisition of mastery occurs in the context of emotional attachments and experiences that allow the content to become related to one’s own personal way of being in the world. Attending seminary, Finke and Dougherty argue, allows Protestant Christians to accrue religious capital by providing an opportunity for the development of not only mastery, but also confidence and articulation of emotional attachment.

To enable the Ezra Fellows to develop their own Jewish capital, we embarked on a year-round partnership with New York’s Mechon Hadar, an organization that was itself born from the experiences of its founders at Harvard Hillel some decades ago. The mandate: to facilitate a program that enabled the Ezra Fellows to develop not only content mastery, but also emotional attachment to the content they were mastering.

Our partnership with Mechon Hadar offers our fellows three modes of learning experiences. They begin the school year with an on-campus Beit Midrash. Over two dynamic days they explore texts and liturgy together through traditional text study, art, drama, music and games. When they return to their campuses, they continue to learn collectively through monthly webinars in which they explore traditional and modern texts using online meeting software. And each week, they learn on a more intimate basis with a chevruta from the fellowship using a curriculum of their choice provided by Mechon Hadar’s Project Zug. Fellows are exploring topics as diverse as food in the Talmud, spirituality in the songs of Leonard Cohen, and social activism in Jewish tradition. The goal of all of these modes of study is not dogmatic. The objective is not for the fellows to learn a given canon of material to the end of quantifiable religious knowledge, belief or practice. The ultimate learning goal is primarily affective. To allow the fellows to develop their own informed understandings of the texts, ideas, cultures and histories of the tradition that interest them, in order to actively pursue their own Jewish questions.

Over a year into the partnership, the results certainly indicate that these ongoing opportunities to accrue an affectively embedded mastery are leading to the steady acquisition of Jewish capital in our fellows. On campus, the fellows are developing relationships with students that are not incidentally Jewish, but built upon connections forged through the sharing of Jewish ideas. The mastery that they are accruing through this partnership certainly does not replicate the deep capital that is forged through years of study in, for example, rabbinical school. But regular, consistent opportunities to engage in Jewish learning allows Ezra Fellows to model for their students a way of living Jewishly in which their passion for Jewish life and learning flows into their conversations and programs organically and with deep emotional attachment.

This series of four articles is presented with the intention of sharing the learnings that we have gleaned from our partnership with Mechon Hadar towards the end of Jewish capital acquisition for Hillel’s Ezra Fellows. I have asked our three Hadar partners, Rabbis Elie Kaunfer, Jason Rubenstein and Avi Killip to offer their own reflections on working with the Ezra Fellows. Their articles highlight the parallels between the Ezra Fellowship and their own Hillel experiences, the natural elision between engagement and education, as well as the powerful relationships that are forged when, in the parlance of the Talmud two Jews, learning together, sharpen one another.

The Ezra Fellowship is supported in part by the Maimonides Fund.

Laura Yares, Ph.D. is the Director of Educational Research and Innovation at Hillel International, where she directs the Ezra Fellowship. She is also on the faculty of the George Washington University’s M.A. Program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts.