The Torah Is Not In Heaven: Why Hillel Professionals Must Do Less To Achieve More?

Fall-2014-FSU HIllelBy Jake Campbell

It one of the most famous Talmudic stories. An oven had been cut into two parts with sand replacing the middle. One Rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer claims that the oven was ritually pure while the rest of the Rabbis protest to his ruling.

Eliezer, believing that his spiritual prowess will persuade his detractors performs an array of miracles. Carob trees are uprooted, streams flow backwards, and walls cave in on themselves. Unpersuaded by the miracles, the other rabbis remained steadfast in their opposition. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer proclaims, “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” Amazingly, sure enough Hashem calls out from heaven, “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer – the law is as he says…” Rabbi Joseph, one of the sages debating Eliezer, upon hearing the voice of Hashem furiously screams towards heaven “Hatorah lo bashamayim hi! The Torah is not in heaven” Hashem crying tears of joy proclaims “My children have triumphed over me.”

Before I was involved in the Jewish community, or before I even had any Jewish friends outside of my family, I found this story. It was the first Talmudic story I had read and I felt inspired by this uniquely Jewish thought that it is up to us living in the world of creation to interpret the law, not a higher power. It is our choice to make of this world what we want, and truly what an amazing world it has become.

Jewish student communities should work in the same way.

Hillel at Florida State University has had tremendous success this year with far less funding than most other Hillels, physical isolation from the home community of students, and with only two staff members. Despite this challenging context, the number of students walking through the door has doubled, the number returning has tripled, and the number engaging with six or more interactions or events has quadrupled in one year. What changed? We realized that the Torah is not in heaven and allowed the students to take control. We guided rather than directed, listened rather than told, and as professionals we did less and let the students do more. Not once did any of our student leadership disappoint us. They budgeted their programming, planned more than five events per week for the spring semester, they ran their own services which they embraced, and they took ownership of their failures critically evaluating how to ensure continual improvement. The rest of the Jewish student community felt this, and as proven by the data saw our community as one in which they had a voice. A community in which they had ownership of the Torah. A community where the Torah was not in heaven.

This is not the first time I have seen students take such responsibility over their community. Before coming to Hillel at FSU, I was involved in the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) for five years ending as the National Development Coordinator where I was responsible for leadership development and campaigns for 23 campuses. In AUJS, the student leadership has complete control over the finances, marketing, and programming over the campuses, and chair the AUJS Ltd board which controls the national finances, development, human resources, and programing including recruitment of professionals. With this level of control that would baffle most Hillels, they are unequivocally successful. At the University of New South Wales for example, one of Australia’s big four Jewish campuses, in 2011 they were able to engage 200 Jewish students, 25% of the Jewish community on campus, within one week. When the remaining campus programming, regional events, national conferences, and international programs are included along with the personal interactions each executive member would have with other Jewish students, no less than 80% of the Jewish students would have been engaged that year. What was the campus budget? $3 per student and they ended up increasing the budget for the following year by 10%.

These two case studies are well supported by the motivational academic research. Ryan and Deci in 2000 completely revolutionized the motivational literature with their seminal Self-Determination Theory (SDT) which to date has over 16,000 citations from the education, management and nonprofit industries. According to SDT, actions which reduce the locus of control, such as threats, deadlines, directives, pressured evaluations, tangible extrinsic rewards (such as stipends), and imposed goals have a diminishing effect on intrinsic motivation. Unsurprisingly then, actions which increase the locus of control for volunteers such as greater choice, acknowledgment of feelings, a relatable purpose, and opportunities for self-direction and mastery were found to enhance intrinsic motivation due to a greater sense of autonomy. Essentially, the more we trust, the more motivated our student volunteers will become.

SDT and the case studies of Hillel at FSU and AUJS at UNSW are not suggesting that there is no need for professionals within Jewish student communities. As a member of the leadership in 2011 at UNSW I passionately can attest that the guidance of all the available professionals was necessary, and many of the professionals I consider mentors even today. I would hope that the student leadership of Hillel at Florida State University feels the same of me and our Executive Director. What SDT and the case studies do suggest, along with the overwhelmingly positive data they carry, is that professionals must act less as directors and more as consultants or guides. If given the opportunity, if truly allowed to lead without interruption or interference, our students will make us proud and they will do so in a way that allows us to get the most out of each dollar. They are not children, they are incredibly talented adults. As Jewish professionals, let us emulate Hashem and leave the Torah in their hands.

Jake Campbell is Jewish Student Life Coordinator at Hillel at FSU (Florida State Univ.) Foundation.