Why Unaffiliated Jewish College Students Aren’t Missing…

Celebrating Kiddush at Tulane Hillel; Sept. 18, 2012. Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano; courtesy Tulane U.
Celebrating Kiddush at Tulane Hillel; Sept. 18, 2012. Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano; courtesy Tulane U.

By Ethan Sobel

I’d like to tell you about a place, one where users are the primary focus; a place that thrives for students, of all races, genders, sexualities, and yes religions. This beacon vibrates with excitement, innovation and creativity. No matter your story, you’re welcome and at home. Regardless of what you’re passionate about, there’s a place for you. The facility emulates the milieu of a Bay Area start-up, and the food, akin to a recipe of a contest on Chopped. Programs are negotiable, and radical inclusivity a must. This place just happens to be Tulane Hillel.

When Jewish professionals describe a typical campus Hillel organization, the tenants usually include thorough Shabbat offerings, High Holiday services, tastes of Jewish learning, social events and myriad of opportunities to meet your future husband or wife. Simply, Hillel staff are working to ensure Jewish traditions of old, become refreshed, reinvigorated and most of all relevant. In coordination with such vision, cohorts of student leaders, from various Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewish backgrounds, reinforce the importance of Jewish heritage and history through their participation and outreach to others. The main driver of student engagement at these Hillels is a result of the “missing out” factor. Both professionals and students alike want to deliver a meaningful Judaism experience to every student possible. But what if the unaffiliated, uninvolved, non-observant, periphery, or whatever term you want to assign them, aren’t in fact missing out at all? What if they are the ones truly satisfying the quench for exploration, self-discovery and meaningful living, without any connection to Hillel or Jewish tradition whatsoever?

It’s as radical a thought as Donald Trump running for President, except not as offensive. A slew of eight Hillels from across the country (Boston University, Standford University, Princeton University, University of Vermont, University of Toronto, University of California San Diego, University of San Francisco, Towson University), gathered at Tulane University this week to engage in the first of its kind Design Impact project, focused on user-centrism and optimism. Rabbi Irwin Kula, President of Clal (and 2008 Newsweek’s seventh most influential rabbi in America) and Rabbi Yonah Schiller, Executive Director of Tulane Hillel, set the premise and mood. What if the concern of Jewish institutions across the world is in fact nothing more than a mental blockade from actually providing useful and inclusive options for 21st century Jews? What if those who used words like unaffiliated, uninvolved, periphery, non-observant and more are part of a cyclical convergence propelling the future erosion of Judaism? The proof lies in the pudding.

Tulane Hillel has been revered internationally for its reemergence on the famed New Orleans campus, as featured in the Huffington Post, Tablet Magazine and more. Its ability to be first and foremost a radically inclusive (in Rabbi Schiller’s words), student life center, allowed it to evolve into a hub for Jews across the institution and city. Instead of highly centralized and overly empowered student boards (of often a completely homogenous demographic and affiliated nature), a nuanced, self-directed student leadership model pervades the space, coined Tulane Jewish Leaders. Initiatives are both Jewish and not-Jewish in nature, but managed by a diverse set of Jewish students, selected through a rigorous application process. They come from fraternities, sororities, athletics, drama & theater, food gurus, social justice cavities, religious zealots, Israel advocates, LGBTQ authenticators, and more; moreover, they apply, because their peers tell them it’s worthwhile. The leadership pool is completely representative of the Jewish student population, a near unachievable goal that most Hillels have been striving for for years.

This analytical and caring group of Hillel Executive and Assistant Directors gathered for two days (and what felt like a week) to learn the ins and outs of design thinking, user-centrism, optimism, discovery and refinement. The goal being not to replicate Tulane Hillel, but to reproduce the 100% dedication to making Judaism a malleable concept rather than a stagnant tradition. Tulane, seven year into its own design challenge, yields a new set of impressive metrics and corresponding results to illustrate success: how many unique students (Jewish and non-Jewish) come through its doors annually; how many juniors and seniors (portraying retention) attend Hillel sponsored programs; the demographics of Tulane Jewish Leaders (representative of the actual Jewish student body); the type of programs students are attending (exemplifying what Judaism is, not was); how many freshmen attend Hillel sponsored programs (displaying initial reputation of Jewish life on campus), and more. The challenge set forth to the attending institutions – develop a relevant, original and clear design challenge for your Hillel – don’t replicate Tulane’s approach.

The two-year process has commenced, and only time will tell what results will follow, but the vision is promising. Charlie Buckholtz, Shalom Hartman Institute senior editor, rabbi and thought-provoker is leading the charge, alongside Trepwise President, entrepreneurial guru, and Tulane Hillel Board Chair, Kevin Wilkins. If the jaw-dropping buildings aesthetics, scrumptious kosher food, and infectious passion from Tulane Hillel staff and students were not enough to motivate the cohort, then the prospect of redefining Judaism for the Jewish students should be. I’m in, you?

Ethan Sobel is Assistant Director at Boston University Hillel.