Jewish Campus Life: There’s an App for That!

[This is the third in a nine-part series describing the projects of the 2011-2012 Jewish New Media Innovation Fund Award Recipients.]

“There is only one thing that 85% of Jews in this country do. There’s no 85% that keep Shabbat. There’s no 85% that keep Kosher. The only thing that 85% of Jews do is go to college. That’s where they are, and that’s where Hillel is.”

Avraham Infeld, June 2010

As the largest organization in the world with a focus on university-age Jews, Hillel reaches young adults during a decisive time in their lives when they are open to influences and experiences that will shape their commitment to the Jewish people. Hillel already makes Jewish life accessible to college students physically (at over 550 colleges and communities around the world) and mentally (through meaningful experiences and education); it’s time that we make it accessible virtually (through a mobile app). Thanks to the Jewish New Media Fund grant, Hillel will develop a new model of Jewish community engagement by placing access to Jewish life directly in the palm of students’ hands.

The Hillel app aims to address two separate challenges through one dynamic solution.

  1. First, Hillel recognizes that Judaism today is no longer an obligation for students but an option. We want to inspire them to opt-in to Jewish life. Through ground-breaking initiatives such as the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, Hillel has created human social networks on campus to engage uninvolved students through peer relationships. Technology can further provide students with a tool to create, invite, promote, and engage their peers in Jewish life. Hillel anticipates this functionality promoting student-generated Jewish opportunities and experiences, from a Shabbat dinner at their residence to an impromptu Jewish film screening to a book club meeting.
  2. To support our strategic goal of “doubling the number of Jewish students involved in Jewish life,” Hillel also seeks to use the Hillel app to introduce greater numbers of high school students to Hillel and Jewish life before entering college. Hillel’s online Guide to Jewish Life on Campus, the world’s foremost search engine for Jewish campus life, receives over 4 million page views each year, representing 500,000 unique visitors. In a world where Facebook and Google regularly update their platforms and tools, students expect technology that offers a more dynamic and interactive experience.

The Hillel mobile app will not only provide information about a school, but convey a real feeling for Jewish life on that campus through video, photos, peer-reviews and more. A dynamic college search will allow high school students (and parents and guidance counselors) to explore university profiles based on geo-location or self-selected criteria. The university profiles will include data, video, photos, and articles on Jewish student population, Jewish organizations on campus, and Jewish Studies courses/degrees. It will also provide details on Israel study abroad and travel opportunities, religious services, food (kosher and non-kosher dining options), Jewish housing, and nearby synagogues and JCCs.

By the conclusion of the first year, Hillel hopes to translate a substantial portion of its unique visitors from its online “Guide to Jewish Life on Campus” to the Hillel app. Local Hillels and interns will begin using it to invite, promote, and engage students in Jewish life. Jewish college students will begin using it to learn about, share, and RSVP to different Jewish life experiences. And Jewish high school juniors, seniors, and parents will begin using it to help in their college search. In three years, Hillel hopes that the app and its companion website will be the leading resources for questions or facts about Jewish life on campus.

Beyond the first three years, however, Hillel views this mobile app as an opportunity to lead the way in developing a new model of Jewish life. Rather than aim to be the singular vehicle through which students access all of Jewish life, the Hillel app will facilitate students organizing their own Jewish micro-communities based on shared interests and values. In this way, Hillel will not only engage students with Jewish life during their four years on campus, but also train them in community organizing so they can create and lead their own Jewish community for the next 40 years.

This kind of functionality has enormous relevance beyond the campus too. A tool that allows individuals to create and promote Jewish opportunities to friends and peers with similar interests has value for a broad range of Jewish organizations seeking ways to more adeptly connect Jewish constituents with their targeted offerings and with each other.

Since its origin in 1923, Hillel has played a critical role in ensuring the future of our Jewish community by creating a welcoming environment for Jewish students and by demonstrating how Jewish tradition can be incorporated into their lives. By virtue of the very mobile devices that are standard for college students, Hillel now seeks to pioneer a new form of Jewish community building of the 21st century, starting with the Hillel app.

The largest Jewish campus organization in the world, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life provides opportunities for Jewish students at more than 500 colleges and universities to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of regional centers, campus Foundations and Hillel student organizations. Hillel is working to provoke a renaissance of Jewish life.

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