Jewish literacy

Rethinking the relationship between Jewish Life and Hillel life

In Short

Hillels must intentionally and explicitly infuse Jewish meaning at the core of every program.

Imagine a Jewish college student who has never experienced Purim. Filled with curiosity, they attend a party at Hillel. The student has a blast eating, dancing and admiring all the quirky costumes — but what if the actual story of Purim never comes up? At best, the student leaves with a watered down understanding of the holiday; and at worst, they simply think of Purim like “Jewish Halloween.” Having worked as a Hillel professional, I certainly do not fault students for assuming this viewpoint; however, for their sake, it is incumbent on Hillel to prioritize content that builds Jewish literacy. 

To expand the offerings we consider “high-impact,” Hillels must intentionally and explicitly infuse Jewish meaning at the core of every program. In a 2007 report entitled “Hillel’s Journey: Distinctively Jewish, Universally Human,” former Hillel International senior officer Beth Cousens insightfully proposed that Hillel’s impact is measured “not by how many students know Hillel, but by how many students understand that Judaism has power, meaning, and value.” We have endless potential to help students shift from engaging with pshat to drash — from learning simple explanations to accessing deeper Jewish meaning. 

Take, for instance, some of the many social action initiatives run by Hillels across the country — trips to fill community fridges, clothing drives and tabling for the Gift of Life Marrow Registry. All these programs are wonderful experiences for students to engage with tikkun olam, the Jewish value of repairing the world; however, we often fail to capitalize on the opportunity to clearly connect their efforts to Jewish values. How can we help students internalize tikkun olam as a Jewish value? And more broadly, how can we avoid Hillel events appearing Jewish in name only or Jewish merely by virtue of being hosted by Hillel? 

The answer is rooted in renewing our sense of kavana (intention) in Hillel program creation. Imagine the power in committing to seeing every connection made with students as an opportunity to infuse Jewish meaning. As Cousens suggests, we ought to “guide students through High-Impact experiences, maximizing the potential of these experiences by identifying, reflecting on, and considering their impact afterward… This foundation of memories will give students a way of interacting with the world and a frame through which to envision a Jewish adulthood for themselves.” Returning to our social action example, it would serve us to both initially frame and conclude these programs by discussing why tikkun olam is a Jewish value and how it feels relevant today. That way, students have the space to more deeply consider how community service might become an expression of their Jewish values in the long term.

One may argue that serious Jewish content will scare college students away from participating in Hillel events. I am not suggesting every Hillel program should include rigorous Jewish learning. In fact, low content events like bagel brunches provide an accessible gateway for many new students to engage with Hillel; however, as Cousens urges, ultimately “Hillel needs high content and low boundaries.” When approached strategically, we can empower less affiliated students by introducing basic Jewish literacy into our events. 

Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish History at Jewish Theological Seminary, references the latest Pew Research Center report to further illuminate this issue:

“By their own admission in 2020, 36% of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 conceded that what keeps them away from synagogue services is their belief that they ‘don’t know enough to participate.’ We can only speculate about the numbers who are uninvolved in other Jewish activities for the same reason. Large numbers of Jews stay away from Jewish settings because they lack basic Jewish literacy and skills.”

Ultimately, in a time when Judaism often feels “plug-and-play,” I urge my fellow Hillel professional to continuously examine the following question: How can I make Judaism accessible and meaningful to this generation of students while at the same time actively encouraging authentic Jewish literacy? By offering creative programming that does both simultaneously, Hillel will inspire students to explore Judaism in many ways, not just during their college years but long into the future.

Heather Alper is a dual MA/MBA candidate in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University.