Students Will Love This!

By Charles Cohen

I was young once.

So sometimes I think I have an idea for a program that would appeal widely to students. One I chose to implement in my first year as executive director of Metro Chicago Hillel drew a grand total of eight students over three sessions.

Turns out, I might not know everything.

I started out with the right process. I asked students directly, “What programs are you looking for?” A few seniors mentioned their anxiety about graduation and life after college – careers, friendships, community.

Around that same time, I met a prospective donor who was concerned about how participants “drop off” between Jewish experiences, such as the gap between being a Jewish college student and a Jewish adult.

When you have Hillel as a one-stop-shop for Jewish learning, programs and friends, what happens when you graduate?

Inspired by my conversations with those seniors and that prospective donor, I met with a colleague in December to start planning a program on Jewish adulting for a January launch. We drafted a curriculum that would expose post-college students to available resources in Chicago, such as Jewish institutions, self-care and mental health options. These resources, in turn, would help them manage the feeling of being overwhelmed that sometimes comes with newfound responsibility and freedom.

I sent the proposal to the prospective donor, and he was delighted. He didn’t send a check right away, but I was confident that once we showed him there was real student interest, he’d make a significant contribution.

My colleague recommended that we round up a few seniors who would commit to attending the sessions and helping with recruitment. She diplomatically added that as the executive director of a multi-campus Hillel, I hadn’t really built up a following of students who would be interested in showing up to my program just because I planned it.

But it was already January! And if we were going to fit in several sessions, we had to move quickly. We put together some Facebook invites, sent out some personal emails and waited eagerly for the first session.

By the third session, we were staring out into a sea of empty chairs. Not a single student showed up, and we knew the project was toast. We didn’t even complete the series.

And you guessed it: I didn’t close the gift.

Looking back, there were several “teachable moments” from this experience that emerged when we debriefed as a staff. Here’s what we learned:

  • Donors want to see that students are the drivers of programs, not merely the passengers. Students should have a strong hand in devising programs and promoting them using their own social networks.
  • You can’t expect students to show up to support you if you don’t have a preexisting, genuine relationship with them.
  • Successful programs usually require plenty of lead time.

These lessons inspired us to create a system-wide Student Leadership Team. Now, our staff has student partners to create programs throughout Metro Chicago Hillel and there’s never an excuse for moving forward without at least a couple of students weighing in. This new model has led to more student involvement and more students reached at the nine campuses we serve.

Here’s what this approach looks like in practice:

Our Friends giving event at Silverstein Base Hillel involves a big dinner, packing meals for a local shelter and a fireside story slam. In November of last year, some 40 students watched six of their peers recite original poetry or perform songs. Each of those students, along with our Student Leadership Team, brought friends to the event.

At another recent program at DePaul, a student conceived and implemented a discussion about Judaism and atheism and brought more than a dozen of his friends to the event.

At Jewish Education Week at Loyola, student leaders planned the whole calendar of events from scheduling to food to content. Dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish students came together to learn about Judaism, Jewish history and Israel.

Students show up to programs when their peers are instrumental in planning and implementing the events. As our Leadership Team matures, we’re confident they will get better and better at bringing their friends to events and, in doing so, growing and strengthening our community.

Charles Cohen is the executive director of Metro Chicago Hillel.

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