Hillel: Building the Jewish Social Network

Five years ago, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life launched a pilot program that leveraged peer networks and relationships and “layered” in Jewish educators to help double the number of Jewish students who are involved in Jewish life and who have meaningful Jewish learning experiences. The planning, implementation, and key findings of the Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (SJE/CEI) are the basis for a case study conducted by the Monitor Institute, a social purpose company with expertise in documenting the use of networks for social change. Additional data and qualitative information on the program can be found in a summary of the evaluation of this pilot program conducted by Research Success Technologies and Ukeles Associates.

By examining the SJE/CEI’s effective utilization of networks as a strategy to educate young Jews and by offering lessons learned, the case study and evaluation provide relevant points for both funders and practitioners. Along with the Jim Joseph Foundation – the program’s primary funder – Hillel believes that it is vital to share these lessons with the field and to open a conversation about how these learnings can inform others working to engage young adults in Jewish life.

In a four-part series for eJewishPhilanthropy, each of the SJE/CEI’s key participants – Hillel, the Jim Joseph Foundation, a Jewish Educator, and a Campus Intern – will offer their perspectives on the program’s outcomes, challenges, and applicable lessons, with a goal of informing stakeholders about new strategies for effectively engaging and educating young Jewish adults.


Hillel: Building the Jewish Social Network
by Jennifer Zwilling

While prevailing sentiment is that Jewish life in America is on the decline, Hillel is bucking the trend. In 2005 after a study showed that just 33% of Jewish students engaged with Hillel during college, Hillel put in motion a strategy designed to dramatically increase the numbers of students engaged in Jewish life during the college years. Embracing the iPod generation’s desire for highly personalized experiences, Hillel placed new focus on cultivating relationships and enlivening students existing social networks with Jewish life, rather than solely offering a wholesale program calendar. The result: involvement in Jewish life on campus is growing. This year Hillel conducted another survey of Jewish college students and found that participation has increased to 45% and that 6 in 10 Jewish students report being impacted by Hillel.

Key to this shift is two linked signature initiatives, the Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative. Launched as a pilot in 2008 and supported by a $10.7 million, five-year grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, Hillel placed Jewish educators to work in tandem with student engagement interns on ten campuses. Together, the interns and educators were charged with meaningfully connecting significant numbers of students to Jewish life and learning.

The Senior Jewish Educators (Educators) are authentic Jewish personalities who act as mentors, teachers, pastors, and community organizers in a variety of campus contexts. They use a relationship-building approach to introduce students to Jewish opportunities and compelling Jewish ideas.

The Educators work in tandem with the Campus Entrepreneur Interns (Interns) – students who develop relationships with peers and connect them to Jewish opportunities. The interns tap their personal social networks, (such as fraternities or sororities, business majors, foodies, artists, or graduating seniors) to connect friends and friends of friends, to each other and to launch student-run Jewish initiatives on campus. As opposed to just planning events for their peers within the walls of Hillel, they seek first to know and understand them, and then to co-create Jewish experiences and offerings that will foster Jewish growth, learning, and connection to Jewish life.

By the end of this year, the interns and educators on these ten pilot campuses will have engaged more than 22,000 Jewish students. As Hillel moves ahead with plans to scale this approach to even more campuses, key lessons-learned from this pilot are shaping Hillel’s approach to building Jewish life. These lessons, highlighted below, are relevant to many others working in the young adult space:

  • Embrace a “network- centric” approach to building Jewish life. Young adults organize themselves through a multiplicity of social networks, both online and off. Organizations that are porous and allow fluid involvement will be more successful at diversifying and growing those engaged.

    Hillel’s who have embraced this approach not only host a weekly Shabbat at Hillel; they are supporting and preparing students to celebrate Shabbat across campus: in dorms, off campus apartments, and in sorority and fraternity houses. Success is no longer counted by how many “come to Hillel” but instead by how many engage in Jewish life.

  • Identify and employ social connectors: Every community, no matter how formal or informal, has that person who knows everyone and takes great pride in making connections between their friends. Hillel’s CEI Intern program rises or falls on employing the right interns who build Jewish life as a natural extension of who they are.

    At the University of Texas one engagement intern in the business school reached out to other Jewish business majors, and together they created a Jewish business students association, putting together networking events with local business leaders and convening discussions about business ethics with a Jewish educator.

  • Invest deeply in the network hubs: Students who are charged with activating their networks need ongoing training and support. So do the Hillel professionals who mentor and hold the students accountable. Hillel is spending increasing amounts of time and resources in building learning communities and offering training, both nationally and locally.

    Last summer at Hillel Institute, 332 students and 56 professionals representing 49 campuses across the US and Canada participated in a 4-day immersive training to prepare them to employ the peer-to-peer engagement approach on campus. On campus, intern cohorts meet weekly with Hillel educators and supervisors for ongoing Jewish learning and professional development.

  • Convey content through relationships: Hillel’s educators are deeply proficient and authentic Jewish role models whose primary function is to facilitate substantive Jewish experiences and conversations for students. These interactions are predicated on relationships they have on campus. The Educators must be an authentic representative of what they are attempting to teach. Similarly, the most successful student interns are those who are themselves exploring and growing Jewishly and thereby bringing their friends and peers along on a shared Jewish journey.

    As Rabbi Ben Berger, the educator at the Ohio State University explains, “It’s not enough to hang up a flyer about a course you’re offering. Students need to be personally invited. The learning needs to connect to the stories of student’s lives and create a forum where they can open up with one another to share their life’s questions.”

    Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, now the educator at Northwestern University shares, “The key question for me, when I sit down with a student, is, ayeka? Where are you? For me, this is not just about where they might happen to be Jewishly, and demands that I initially set aside any agenda about their Jewish engagement if it comes up.” Without that relationship, Danya notes, she doesn’t know where Judaism can be “of service” for that student.

  • Allow the substance of students’ lives to dictate the content: Jewish literacy is a goal but educators primarily use the texts and learning experiences as a mirror on students’ lives, enabling them to see tradition speaking to the questions most pertinent to their lives, and inviting them into the ongoing dialogue of generations.

    At the University of Delaware, seniors facing graduation have clamored to participate in a seniors-only conversation with their educator, Rabbi Jeremy Winaker. As a group, the students explore such questions about being true to themselves (in choosing a career, their relationships with family, friends, etc.) and share anxieties about graduation through a uniquely Jewish lens.

  • Learn from local adaptation and translate across the institution: While there are certainly common practices across all campuses, local Hillels did not integrate the educators and interns in their current program configurations all in the same way. Hillel’s Schusterman International Center staff learned as the program developed and translated core practices and local variants broadly across the field. Communities of practice and a partnership between Hillel’s Schusterman International Center and local campuses were essential to this effort.

    Directors on the ten pilot campuses became a learning community, convening twice annually to reflect on the impact of the project, ultimately articulating new educational visions for their Hillels and striving to apply that vision and the lessons learned across other facets of their campus Hillels.

The ten pilot campuses aren’t the only ones embracing a network approach to Jewish life. Over 60 North American campus Hillels and nine Hillels internationally are participating in some sort of peer-to-peer engagement project and at least another ten are experimenting with full or part-time Jewish educators to support student networks. An independent evaluation found that students engaged by peers and Jewish educators report having more Jewish connections and engage in more Jewish activity. The interns are growing Jewishly as well and emerging as a new generation of Jewish leaders.

The success of the Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative demonstrates that Jewish students do in fact want to engage in Jewish life and learning during their college years. But, different than their parents’ generation, they seek Jewish engagement in a personalized manner among peers with which they share an existing connection. With these key lessons learned, Hillel will continue to utilize social networks and peer relationships to engage an increasing number of Jewish students across the Hillel network in the years ahead.

Jennifer Zwilling is the Associate Vice President for Student Engagement at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. To read more about Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educator/Campus Entrepreneur Initiative read the case study by the Monitor Institute, Leveraging Social Networks for Student Engagement, and the Summative Evaluation Report based on research conducted by Research Success Technologies and Ukeles Associates.

photo: University of Maryland Hillel students; courtesy