Social by Design: Building a Jewish Home on Campus

The research on the power of social networks is unequivocal: if we want young adults to engage in Jewish life, they will need Jewish friends to support this engagement.

social-by-designBy Erica Frankel

[This is the sixth in an annual series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]

“You could dim the lighting,” I muse, “bring in a few lanterns, and drape strings of white lights.” I suggest setting up twenty-five chairs in a tight circle – a shape intimate enough to open up its occupants to lively discussion. “As people enter, you can welcome them inside this way.” I gesture to the left side of the door. “Then, invite them to make nametags, have two older students pass around tapas and make introductions, and have some upbeat music playing on speakers.” I sing a few notes, listen to them bounce around the space, then add, “the acoustics are beautiful. You could definitely host Shabbat in here.”

I’m standing in a multipurpose programming space being used by Hillel at Penn State as they pilot a new fellowship for undergraduates. I have visited a number of campuses lately with an eye toward creating lively and warm spaces for cohort-based learning. Sometimes I joke that I’m the host of Extreme Makeover: Hillel Edition, but to be specific: I’m teaching campuses to create educational environments, which are social by design.

In his recent article on this topic, my colleague Dan Smokler describes social by design as an educational approach that strategically cultivates friendships and a community of belonging. The research on the power of social networks is unequivocal: if we want young adults to engage in Jewish life, they will need Jewish friends to support this engagement. The educator’s responsibility, then, is not only to impart meaningful and inspiring content, but also to graduate young adults who understand how to participate in Jewish community beyond and after us. They will need Jewish social networks and a feel for the rhythm of communal life; we must educate toward these outcomes.

Designing educational spaces for social outcomes takes into account an important learning, crystalized for me as a participant in Yeshiva University’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education: every single aspect of an educational setting affects what is learned. Not only are the learning conditions created by the content, but also by how the room looks, how people are encouraged to interact, when and how meals are served (and what type of food is at the meals), and more. These “logistical and organizational considerations are neither incidental nor secondary to the educational program; they are themselves inherently educational issues,” Dr. Barry Chazan emphasizes in The Philosophy of Informal Jewish Education (2003).

To inspire students to build new friendships, we should craft experiences which are ongoing, immersive, and cohort-based. We should greet people as they enter the room and orchestrate introductions – “have you met Sarah yet? You’re both from the South!” – and insist upon wearing nametags for at least five gatherings. (For whatever reason, five seems to be the magic number at which everyone can remember more than twenty names). Moreover, we should create beautiful spaces with good lighting, warm ambience, and intimate seating arrangements that open people up to conversation. In my experience, this often involves twinkly lights, a well-curated soundtrack, and tapas as people enter. Passed hors d’oeuvres both provide an excuse to strike up conversation – “excuse me, have you tried these sea salt pita chips? You simply must!” – and, on a basic level, give people something to do with their hands during a first social encounter.

To introduce students to the rhythms of a community, we can ritualize elements of our educational gatherings to invoke a sense of familiarity and belonging. Eating together with other Jews on a weekly basis makes attendance at a Shabbat dinner much easier to imagine. And we can and should spend Shabbatot together, either by inviting students into our own homes or creating a home-like experience in our learning environments (good singing acoustics help). We can also learn from the “big sib” model that fraternities and sororities employ. By inviting two or three older students to serve as “bigs” for cohort-based educational experiences, we can insure that someone will onboard students into community by inviting them to communal events and activities, sitting with them, and serving as a “wing-person to Jewish life.”

Hillel takes this approach seriously in its Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF), a ten-week seminar geared toward students of low to moderate levels of Jewish engagement. JLF was founded in 2007 at NYU and is now being scaled to new campuses. While developing this program, we learned that perhaps most important of all was the language we used to describe it. In their interviews for the program, in our first gathering, and onward throughout the semester, we shared with students that we hoped they would find themselves at the end of the semester in a room surrounded by friends, feeling at home in community at Hillel.

At the end of ten weeks in JLF, we plan a commencement ceremony for fellows – honoring them in the presence of friends and family. In their reflections, they often echo back to us this very language.

To one student, Rachel, these budding friendships and her newfound home at Hillel feel serendipitous, but they are also the byproduct of an educational experience that was built – thoughtfully and intentionally – to be social by design. Rachel reflected at her commencement:

“Hillel has become a place I can call my home away from home, and I consider the people here my family. I attribute this newfound community to JLF, and to all the wonderful people it has connected me to. What I’m taking away is not only a newfound perspective on Judaism and the role it plays in my life, but it is also these relationships.”

Erica Frankel is the Director of Strategic Development for the Jewish Learning Fellowship at Hillel International and a graduate of the third cohort of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

Applications for Cohort VI of the Certificate Program will be accepted through March 14, 2016. For more information and to apply visit

The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.