Why Peer-to-Peer Jewish Engagement Works

[This post is part 4 of a series on the Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative; the previous posts can be found here.]

by Andrew Abrams

As an American, I feel the trends of personalization taking over my life. My radio plays music exactly to my preference and my Internet suggests products that “I may like.” Yet college students often express that Judaism fails to deliver this level of personalization. I felt this way as well during my first years in college. Jewish campus organizations offered services for all denominations, community service activities, and more. But while all these were great and many peers enjoyed them, they never seemed to grab my interest. No one took the time to ask me about my interests, how I wanted to grow, and what inspired me Jewishly. Not until I was recruited to be part of Hillel’s Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, did anyone ask, “What about Judaism is important to you, and how can we collectively explore that?”

By asking this important question, Hillel engages Jewish students who are not active in Jewish campus life, meeting them where they are Jewishly. As a CEI intern at the University of Pennsylvania, I am now a part of this engagement. I foster meaningful yet comfortable peer-to-peer conversations about almost anything Jewish-related: identity, family traditions, Israel, and more. In the past year I have built relationships with 60 previously uninvolved Jewish students of all backgrounds, providing opportunities for them to explore and embrace their Judaism Because of a partnership between the Union for Reform Judaism and Hillel, I specifically focused my engagement efforts on Reform Jews, but truthfully my interactions with them have not differed much from those with uninvolved Jews of other denominations or observance levels, who are basically looking for an accessible, meaningful, and fun way to connect with Judaism.

Before I started my internship, I thought that building Jewish relationships with inactive Jews would be a daunting task. But it’s not. Many Jewish students love the idea of embracing their Judaism once they are invited to personalize it. That is the integral element of my role as a Campus Entrepreneur.

Here’s how it works: as a fellow student, I connect with an unengaged Jew on his/her terms and his/her comfort level. Our conversations reflect our daily lives while also examining how our thoughts, challenges, and successes can be viewed through a Jewish context. For example, a discussion with one classmate about the differences between being at home and at college led to a conversation about how being Jewish is very different when a student is on his or her own. In a given week this year, I also discussed famous Jewish athletes with a member of my fraternity and whether God belief is required in Judaism with a classmate – topics that were personally very meaningful to these students. In another instance, after talking about intermarriage, the person I engaged sought me out a week later to continue the conversation.

Every CEI intern also tailors a year-long initiative to the interests of those he/she engages. For example, since Israel has been a dominant topic of conversation among uninvolved students at UPenn, I collaborated with other campus networks to organize Israel education and awareness events. We co-hosted a dinner in which Jewish students who had expressed interest in Israel-based conversations got to mingle with nine visiting Israeli college students. As the Americans and Israelis compared and contrasted their college experiences, they discovered that overall – regardless of different experiences such as the Israelis’ mandatory pre-college military service – the students themselves had a lot in common. By the evening’s end, both the Americans and the Israelis had made new friends, uninvolved Jewish students began thinking more about Israeli issues, and one UPenn student was inspired to pursue a Birthright Israel trip.

Other conversations about life, philosophy, and integrity can all involve Jewish concepts indirectly. For example, when talking about summer plans with a friend, the conversation casually moved to a discussion of what it means to be “successful.” This led us to the concept that self-evaluation is a deeply Jewish ideal which we contemplate every year during Yom Kippur. We agreed that money does not ultimately define success; many other things, including family, personal satisfaction, and being an ethical person, are far more important.

I learned that by engaging with fellow Jewish students in this way, that “Jewish conversations” do not necessarily need to begin with topics that focus on Jewish themes. That is one of the key reasons why I believe this program is successful. When students engage with each other in an open and comfortable environment, they are more likely to welcome the encounter, the opportunity for introspection, and the opportunity to engage on a deeper level with a Jewish educator. I often invited the Hillel Senior Jewish Educator at UPenn to meet with the students I engaged, or asked him for resources to help me deepen my Jewish conversations with peers.

As a CEI intern, I see how engaging Jewish peers on issues that matter to them creates more meaningful Jewish experiences. These interactions can shape their Jewish identity and provide a foundation that they can build upon for the rest of their lives.

Andrew Abrams is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. To read more about Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educator/Campus Entrepreneur Initiative read the case study by the Monitor Institute, Leveraging Social Networks for Student Engagement, and the Summative Evaluation Report based on research conducted by Research Success Technologies and Ukeles Associates. A version of this article previously appeared in Reform Judaism magazine, college edition, Fall 2012.