You Too are Jewish Leaders

The following is the Commencement Address delivered this year by Tilly Shames to the Jewish Communal Leadership Program, Masters of Social Work, at the University of Michigan.


In my early days of working at Hillel, I remember having a conversation with a campus professional about how to find the Jews on campus. “You want to know who’s Jewish?” he asked, “Put up a sukkah on one side of the street and see who crosses to the other side to avoid you. That’s how you’ll know who is Jewish.” It was a cynical response of course, but one that has clearly stayed with me and has a pearl of truth to it.

In my role as a Jewish leader, I think a lot about the student who crosses the street. I want to reach that student and know that student because I was that student. I was the person who wouldn’t step foot in my Hillel.

In the middle of my third year at York University, already the beginning of December, a friend called me to ask if I wanted to go on a Jewish leadership trip to Israel for $300 over that winter break, where we would be Canadian delegates to a World Union of Jewish Students conference in Jerusalem. I thought it was a joke or a scam, and that he clearly had the wrong person. I had always wanted to go to Israel, but this was pre-birthright days and I just couldn’t afford it. I was flattered but completely confused. I told him I wasn’t a Jewish leader on campus and he said, “Well, you’re Jewish and you’re a leader (I was the president of the Environmental Studies Students Association) so you’re a Jewish leader.” So, I went.

The trip lit a spark that continues to stay with me today.

You may have felt those sparks at some point – on the dock at camp, on a bus in Israel, around your grandparents’ table. The thing is, a spark needs more fuel or else it will die out where it started and just be left on that dock or on that bus as a nice memory.

For me, the fuel came when I returned to campus and I experienced another invitation, this time to a Tu B’Shvat seder at someone’s home. It was the perfect combination of an invitation from a trusted friend, in a comfortable space, for a topic that I loved. How could I say no?

Two transformative things happened at that seder.

One, I began to explore the intersection of Jewish values and environmental values, which later led to a senior thesis and a master’s thesis and a life of rooting my social justice values in Judaism.

And second, I met Pearl Gropper, the Hillel director. This Hillel director came up to me – a student who had never stepped foot in her Hillel – with a big smile, no guilt, and a warm greeting, saying “Tilly (she knew my name), I’ve heard so much about you. I’m so glad you came.” From there, she invited me to Hillel.

So, I stepped into Hillel for the first time. I’d like to say it was love at first sight and that’s when I knew I’d become a Hillel director one day. Frankly, it was as bad as I feared. When I walked in, the students looked up from the couches and didn’t recognize me from camp or day school or youth group, so they ignored me. So I went straight to Pearl’s office. It was the beginning of many visits to that office, where I’d avoid the lounge of students and just visit Pearl. Pearl sent me to environmental conferences in Arizona and California, where I met other people like me and learned more about Jewish environmental values and programming. Pearl gave me the tools and resources so that I could bring the programs from these conferences back to campus to my friends in Environmental Studies. Not one of those programs happened in Hillel. They happened in houses, outdoors, or in the Environmental Studies lounge. And Pearl even included me on a panel about Creating our Jewish Future as the voice of the “unaffiliated” non-institutional Jew.

And now, I run a pretty big Jewish institution, one that I know many students would cross the street to avoid for all the reasons I had and more, or for no reason at all other than they just don’t care. We have students who won’t enter because we’re too pro-Israel or not pro-Israel enough, too religious or not religious enough, too Greek or not Greek enough – all at the same time. But most often, I believe, they are not walking in because no one has thought to invite them through the doors and they fear that no one will greet them on the other side.

I regard my own Hillel experience a little like Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It’s all there, just flushed out further and understood more deeply by each new experience I continue to have in Hillel now as an Executive Director. The world has changed. The country I live in has changed. The pressures and music and telephones and hairstyles and clothing have certainly changed. But the core of what I know about Hillel and students and Jewish community could all be learned from those experiences.

First, the invitation is critical. A friend called me on my landline at home to invite me to Israel 3 weeks before the trip. A friend invited me to a Tu B’shvat seder in her home. A Hillel director invited me into the Hillel space. Each time, someone I knew and trusted invited me in and was going to greet me on the other side of that door. Our best Hillel student leaders today often site and give credit to the exact person who invited them to Hillel for the first time, or spoke to them at a Shabbat dinner, or invited them to go for coffee and suggested that they run for leadership. The invitation matters, which leads me to my second lesson.

Second, people are simple. We want to be seen, we want to be heard, and we want to know that we matter. I always knew I mattered in Pearl’s office. The students in the lounge may not have seen me, but Pearl saw me and listened to me and gave me a platform for my voice. I mattered in Pearl’s office. My Judaism mattered. My connection to Jewish community mattered. My leadership mattered. My experience as a student and the experience of my own community outside of Hillel mattered, which leads me to the next lesson.

Third, once you get a sense of what others need, give them support, opportunities, money, and knowledge, boost them with a bit of confidence that they can do it, and then get out of their way. Time and again I see the impact of investing in and empowering others to bring out their own brand of Judaism for themselves and their peers. Empower the prosumers – those who are looking to produce what they and their friends want to consume. And don’t be threatened by it. I may have hated that Hillel lounge and couldn’t name one person in it. I never saw myself as a Hillel leader because of them, but I have always credited Hillel for giving me the tools and resources and knowledge and confidence and support to embark on my own Jewish journey and bring Jewish life to my community, and feel like a Jewish leader for the first time because someone told me that I was.

Fourth, buildings are nice. And important. They are convenient and provide a home away from home for those looking for a home away from home. And for those who are not, it’s just someone else’s home. We have too much to offer to be contained by our buildings, so go outside every day – both as a leader and with your programming. Every time I meet a student on campus, I see another student I haven’t seen in ages (because that student doesn’t step foot in Hillel) and am reminded to follow up with them. We need to be in our buildings and across the street at the same time, supporting Jewish life where it naturally emerges. Building Jewish community outside of the institution does not take away from building important Jewish community inside the institution. As a student, I was never going to show up in that lounge or walk into a lunch and learn at Hillel. My Jewish environmental programming did not take one person away from that Hillel. But it did bring dozens more “in” without making them ever “step foot” into that lounge. And maybe it even exposed a few of those comfortable lounge Jews to the idea that there is vibrant Jewish life outside the walls of their institution.

Fifth, I learned that sparks need fuel to stay lit. I could have gone to one event or one conference. But if I didn’t do something with it, keep growing, keep learning, it would have simply become a memory of a nice experience I once had. At Hillel today, we measure impactful, lasting programming to include: 1) immersive experiences – like my trip to Israel or environmental conferences, 2) Jewish leadership – like being empowered to bring Jewish environmental programming to my peers, and 3) participation in 6+ programs a year – like the continued visits to Pearl’s office and events. All of it was there to set me on a path to feeling connected to Jewish life, learning and community. It kept the spark lit.

Sixth, Judaism comes alive for people not just when it crosses the street but when it crosses into what is important, and adds value to one’s life. It’s not just the number of events or the amount of time we spend doing Jewish programs. I went to that Tu B’shvat seder because it spoke to values that I already held. I was rooting my Jewish experiences in texts and values related to things that were important to me, that added value personally and academically. Weaving Jewish ethics, Jewish history, and Jewish community into my understanding of environmental and social justice approaches, elevated both my relationship to my environmentalism and my relationship to Judaism. At the beginning of my environmental studies learning, I thought (actually, I had been taught in my first year environmental ethics class) that Judaism had nothing to say about the earth other than to dominate it. By the end of my fourth year, through my continued learning, I submitted a senior honor’s thesis on Jewish environmental values that continue to animate my actions today.

Lastly, I learned that powerful leadership happens on the edges of a community. It involves risk and it involves trust. This idea keeps developing for me and is relearned over and over again. Leadership happens in these blurry, challenging spaces on the edges where we are a little uncomfortable and a little unsure. Where we can feel both the risk and the reward. I trusted my friend and hopped on a plane to Israel 3 weeks later with complete strangers. I was totally an unknown, and my Hillel decided to send me to an expensive conference in Arizona in the hope that I would do something with it back on campus. I kept going back to that Hillel even though I didn’t see mirrors of myself there because I could see there was something else I could get out of the experience. Hillel gave me a seat and a voice on a community-funded panel because they thought I might have something to say about the Jewish future. We all took risks that set me on a path I continue to walk today.

Clearly, this all was transformative or I wouldn’t have such a clear memory of it, nor would I keep coming back to it as the core underlying approach to my work. I can’t begin to express to you how impactful it was for someone to see me as a Jewish leader – whether it was that first trip to Israel or a ticket to a conference or a seat on a panel. I didn’t see myself as that Jewish leader, but someone else did.

I say this to you not to remind you that you too are Jewish leaders. You can look on your wall at your diploma when you need a reminder or a boost to your confidence. But I say it to remind you not to dismiss the person who crosses the street. To see potential Jewish leaders all around you and to understand that your invitation to others, your investment in others, your empowerment of others, your seeing others, your taking a risk on others – that is what really matters, and that is ultimately what I hope you will each do with your degrees and your work in our community. I welcome you as my colleagues and can’t wait to see the risks you will take with your leadership and the impact you will have. Go Blue!

Tilly Shames is the Executive Director of University of Michigan Hillel.