Redesigning Hillel Work:
A Report from the Organizational Design Lab Pilot

By Yonah Schiller and Charlie Buckholtz

“I have a Hillel that had been declining for years, so I had low expectations. I learned through our outcomes and growth to never minimize what’s possible. I continue to be amazed by what we can achieve.” Feedback from a participating Hillel

In quiet moments, Hillel professionals can sometimes be found commiserating about the difficulty of reaching students who don’t naturally gravitate towards Hillel – despite their most sincere, strenuous, and creative efforts to cultivate robust and inclusive Jewish community on campus. This problem is not unique to Hillel, of course; it is a challenge shared by the organized Jewish community at large in addition to the general ecosystem of affiliate and membership organizations. It was the challenge Yonah Schiller set out to solve ten years ago when he arrived as the Executive Director of Tulane Hillel. The dramatic transformation and rapid growth catalyzed at Tulane sparked curiosity and interest across the field. In response, we created a scalable model to replicate Tulane Hillel’s process and success. In 2016, we launched an intensive two-year pilot program, the Organizational Design Lab (ODL), to help a cohort of eight Hillels disrupt their shared frustration around a perceived ceiling on the numbers and types of students they could reach. The pilot set out to assist in transforming their organizational cultures.

We shared our design-based approach to organizational change-management with a diverse cohort of Hillels across the U.S. and Canada. We launched this journey of student-centered transformation with some courageous and truly inspiring colleagues. Additionally, in order to be transparent and methodical, we brought in an outside evaluator to observe our process and track our progress against the major goals we set, all shared by the Hillels in the cohort:

  1. to increase overall breadth and depth of student engagement;
  2. to increase the diversity of students engaging with Hillel;
  3. and to transform the culture of Hillel into one of optimism and possibility.

A Full Report and the Executive Summary, based on the evaluation, illustrates that these approaches not only accomplished our goals of increased and diversified engagement, but can also be applied in a wide variety of campus landscapes. We also gained many valuable insights about how this process positively impacts professional staff along axes of staff engagement and investment, job-satisfaction, and junior-staff empowerment and overall performance.

The first step in solving the problem of student participation was to rigorously and systematically learn about each campus ecosystem as a whole. A key element was to understand the perspectives, identities, and interests of students who chose not to come to Hillel – often the majority of Jewish students on campus. We also encouraged professionals to adopt an open-ended curiosity about how Hillel is perceived across campus. And we focused on listening directly to students about their lives, and on understanding where, and how, they find value. What we discovered while guiding our participating Hillels through this “Discovery” process – systematically interviewing diverse samples of students, rigorously organizing and analyzing the results – surprised even seasoned Hillel staff.

Many Jewish students who chose not to participate in Hillel had no intention to reject their Jewish identity. In fact, what we heard was broadly consistent with the Pew Report finding that 94% of Jews under the age of 40 are proud to be Jewish – many students who had little or no relationship with Hillel professed an interest in engaging with their Jewish identities under the right circumstances. The problem was that they didn’t think Hillel was meant for them in the first place. Moreover, they were largely unaware (if not skeptical) that Hillels could be relevant and compelling for large and diverse demographics of Jews on campus that typically are not affiliated with Jewish institutional life.

These are the kinds of transformative insights that campuses heard and for which they designed solutions throughout the ODL process. Guided by the tenets of what is known as Human-Centered Design, we helped this cohort to reset organizational priorities around an expanded understanding of who constituted the user-base, and who the users were, in their own words – giving voice to students’ passions and interests as full co-creators of Jewish life.

In the process of working with these Hillels to help them grow and change in the ways they sought, we also gained some crucial insights about what is needed for organizational change to be effective, sustainable, and truly transformative. We learned that while it is easy and trendy to talk about design thinking methodologies and to talk about change, ultimately the most critical success factor is a rigorously consistent commitment by the organization as a whole. We learned that ODL is not simply an engagement strategy, but a genuine organizational design process – visionary and pragmatic, systematic and adaptable – one that yields transformative, measurable impact and sustainable change.

We all have an understandable need to see quick results that satisfy donors and stakeholders, and secure financial commitments – but growth and change take time. This exceptional cohort of professionals understood this and through much experimentation, testing, and iteration, stayed the course. Their powerful leadership and the corresponding results speak for themselves.

Yonah Schiller is the Executive Director of Tulane Hillel, and Founder & Senior Project Advisor of the Organizational Design Lab.

Charlie Buckholtz is the Director of the Organizational Design Lab.