Lost in Translation

By Magda Dorosz

When I was first introduced to Hillel’s engagement methodology, I was impressed by how a simple coffee invitation can turn into long-lasting relationships between students and Hillel professionals.

The concept of inviting a student out for coffee to learn what’s on their mind and hear about their studies and personal interests outside the classroom seemed like such an easy thing to replicate in Poland. I imported the methodology to Hillel Warsaw, where I serve as executive director, certain it would succeed like it does for my American colleagues.

I was wrong.

When we started inviting students out for coffee dates, they were perceived more like interrogations than hangouts. Students could not understand why we wanted to know so many details about their private lives and were honestly creeped out by us. We ended up inadvertently pushing students away.

Once, when one of my staff members invited a student for a coffee date, he kept rescheduling the meeting. It turns out he was stalling because he thought he was being asked out on a romantic date, not a Hillel coffee date! That’s how confusing the concept of a coffee date with a staffer had seemed to him.

Can you imagine how awkward that must have been, for both parties involved? When I heard this story, I asked my staff to stop inviting students out for coffee. I could not risk putting my staff in the position where another such misunderstanding could occur.

An engagement technique that seems so natural and easy for my American colleagues failed to translate to Polish audiences. With the benefit of hindsight, I believe I now understand why.

Poles take time to open up to someone and divulge details about their personal lives, especially when addressing such delicate issues as embracing and developing Jewish identities. Poles are known for their hospitality, but it takes time for us to speak openly about matters closest to our hearts.

My staff and I have learned that coffee dates with Hillel staffers can take place only after a student has already attended several of our events. For us, coffee dates are not a tool to invite someone to Hillel. They are not a way of starting a conversation. They are a way of continuing the conversation. They help us to get to know a student better after they’ve already built a rapport and trust with us.

Please don’t get me wrong. Polish people do enjoy going out for coffee, but with a friend, not with a stranger. And the hard truth we had to learn was that as Hillel professionals, we are strangers to some of our students until we’ve interacted with them at least two or three times.

Now we know that before we want to implement any programs devised by our American colleagues, we need to consider how they will translate by examining them not only through the lens of language, but through the lens of culture.

In this case, we did not want to give up on meeting students where they are and building relationships outside of the Hillel space, as we already knew just coming to our space is too big a first step for some of our students.

We spent months in the office trying to find a solution to our problem. We started by asking some of our most active students for input. What would make them feel comfortable? How could we start the conversation without it being too intimidating? How can we change the coffee date idea so that the student feels seen, heard and cared about but not interrogated?

During that process, we learned from our students that being called on to speak about their Jewish story was uncomfortable. It was just too personal a subject to discuss with a stranger or new acquaintance.

Gaining that critical insight allowed us to figure out that we needed to suggest discussion topics as the starting point of the conversation, which could over time turn to deep, personal questions of Jewish identity. We realized we need to build the relationship on comfortable ground before starting the Jewish identity discussion.

Today, I’m happy to report that we aren’t giving up on our coffee dates challenge. My staff and I put our heads together to try to find a way for this program to work with our students and within our culture. We are starting over, with a more customized approach for our audience.

Instead of inviting students for a typical coffee date, we’ve decided to organize meetings that we call “open office hours.” We advertise that we are sitting in a specific Warsaw coffee shop on a specific day and time and invite interested students to come and grab a coffee with one of us. We’ve prepared a list of suggested conversation topics that range from programs in Israel, getting to know local Jewish organizations and Jewish life in general. They make a delicate situation less awkward by giving students jumping off points for the conversation.

This experience has taught me three valuable lessons:

First, just because something is clear to me does not necessarily mean that it is clear for my students, or that they will buy in. I am not synonymous with my audience.

Second, talking about my Jewish identity is easy for me now, but it might not be for our students.

Third, implementing a foreign method is about trial and error until it works in your cultural setting. Success is an iterative process. You keep trying, failing and learning until you finally succeed.

Magda Dorosz is the executive director of Hillel Warsaw.

From a series by Hillel professionals who share their stories of failure and what they learned in the process.