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See where students are to meet them where they are, says SF Hillel program director

Students speaking with various Bay Area organizations about different Jewish values. Photo by Rachel Nilson.

By Sasha Joseph

We are discovering that for students to be connected to Judaism, Jewish experiences must be personalized, experiential and relatable, all at the same time.

A group of San Francisco Hillel staff and students are walking to the quad, armed with a Torah and a ball pit. As we walk, we see a sea of curious faces before us.

A staff member begins setting up a DJ booth, and the other volunteers hang a sign for the 10th annual Jewish Culture Week on San Francisco State University’s campus. As we do this, students flock to us, peppering us with questions. A Torah, a ball pit and a DJ both aren’t exactly standard issue tabling items. Is this an exhibit, they ask? A demonstration? Some sort of performance art?


Before I go on, let me take you back six months, when our Hillel went back to the drawing board to brainstorm ways to make Judaism even more relevant to our students.

San Francisco Hillel has a special opportunity in that regard. We work on a campus where many Jewish students attend their first ever Shabbat experience, with us. Many don’t come from traditionally affiliated families, where they grow up going to Jewish camp or having a bar/bat mitzvah. They are often exploring their Jewishness and becoming part of Jewish communities for the first time, through their interactions with Hillel.

We are discovering that for students to be connected to Judaism, Jewish experiences must be personalized, experiential and relatable, all at the same time.

As we planned our four-day exhibit together, we knew it had to make every student feel like it was created with only them in mind. Where to start? We looked at Snapchat Live stories posted by San Francisco-area students. What do they find snap-worthy? Where are they on the weekends? This sort of consumer research was invaluable. After all, we’re not making widgets. We’re serving human beings. And to meet them where they are, we had to see where they are.

For our exhibit to feel personal, we put forth our richest resource – people and their stories – to represent today’s Jewish world to our campus. We want students to see themselves reflected in modern Judaism, and to reach the maximum number of students, we knew we had to rely on one-on-one engagement methodology.

We set up different tables featuring students with various identities – Sephardi, Mizrahi, Asian, Ashkenazi – to engage the most number of students on campus.

We passed out headphones and created a silent disco on campus. On each station: Jewish music from all over the world! A contemporary music channel featuring artists like Drake, a global station featuring Jewish Bollywood, Ethiopian and Russian music.

A prospective student, Gabe Smallson, spontaneously broke out in a rikudaiam, an Israeli dance, right there in full view on the quad, listening to his personalized Israeli radio station. “I feel part of a community that I didn’t even know I needed,” he said.

To make Judaism increasingly relatable, we asked a broad array of Bay Area Jewish organizations to present on Jewish values as they express them.

Keshet discussed the need for inclusion of LGBTQ Jews. Interfaith Family educated passers-by on the many ways modern Jewish families are comprised. JIMENA advocated for the history of Arab Jews to be taught and remembered. Bechol Lashon brought stories of Jews of color, who make up 20% of American Jews today. Each organization handed out a Jewish value in the form of a text, ranging from Tanakh to Pirkei Avot.

Sasha Presley, a student from an interfaith family, said, “I finally feel like I am seen, and my Judaism recognized.”

Making Judaism experiential, connecting college students to ancient rituals? Now this was a challenge! And we set the bar high with the mikvah, or ritual bath. We had to deconstruct what is for some a complicated, loaded and mysterious Jewish ritual, and present it in a simple and approachable way. Our answer? We asked our students to write something they wanted to rid themselves of on rice paper, dissolve it in a bowl of water, and then jump into our ball-pit mikvah.

From the teachings of Rabbi Simcha Bunem we decided to create a collective piece of art that illuminated how ritual can lead to self-discovery. We created a map of the world, with half of the world marked V’anokhi afar v’efer – “I am but dust and ashes, or “How do you work to make the world a better place?” and on the other side, Bishvili nivra ha-olam –  “for my sake the world was created,” or “How do you practice self-love?” Students used their fingerprints to leave their mark on the world.

By making Judaism more personalized, relatable and experiential, we built a bridge for students to take the first of hopefully many steps into our welcoming, diverse and inclusive Jewish community on campus.

From this experience, I offer two takeaways, two #HillelTruths designed to make programming for college students more successful.

1. Meet them where they are. Assess your constituency. What will make them feel heard and represented? Learn from your community and use what they think is “snap-worthy” into your programming. We have the skill to find Jewishness in almost everything, so why not use what our students think is relevant?

2. Failure is worth the risk of trying. Our silent disco could have flopped, but we made the effort to learn what students care about and tried to incorporate that into our work. If what you dare to dream doesn’t always work, do a post-mortem, and chalk it up to a learning experience before you plan your next big campus event.

Sasha Joseph is the director of student life at San Francisco Hillel, and a Hillel International Ezra Fellow. The Ezra Fellowship is supported in part by the Maimonides Fund.