Senior Jewish Educator Rabbi Joel Nickerson teaches at Engagement Institute.
The challenge: Involve the majority of Jewish college students in their Jewish identity.
A solution: Focus on one-to-one relationships between students, and between students and Hillel professionals.
Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life calls this relationship-based model of Jewish identity building “engagement.” Last week more than 500 students and Hillel professionals from around the world traveled to Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, Ga., to learn how to do it effectively.
The event was the largest gathering focused on engagement in Hillel’s history. It combined training sessions for Hillel student activists and professional leaders from 80 campuses in North America, Europe, Israel, and Latin America
“By bringing together Hillel professionals and students in one location around the theme of engagement, we are sending the message that we are actively seeking to strengthen Jewish identity among the majority of uninvolved Jewish students on campus,” explains Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone. “It clearly places engagement at the center of the Hillel world.”
“It was inspiring to see so many of Hillel’s stakeholders together as we all prepare for a new school year,” said Jamie Silverstein, director of engagement at The George Washington University Hillel. “Engagement Institute was a great way to network with my new colleagues and immerse myself in Hillel’s mission, vision and central goal through a unique hands-on experience.”
Newly-appointed University of Georgia Hillel Director Joel Marcovitch was one of 15 men and women to participate in Hillel’s 2009 New Directors’ Institute. “It was great to catch up on the latest techniques for working with students,” said Marcovitch. “Even though I was assistant director at another large state university, the University of Michigan, every campus is different. I look forward to bringing this experience with me to Athens.” The Institute is made possible through the support of the Julian Sandler Endowment for Executive Leadership Development.
A centerpiece of Engagement Institute was training for student participants in Hillel’s Campus Entrepreneurs (CEI) and Peer-Network Engagement Internship (PNEI) programs. These programs employ student interns to engage 50-60 of their peers and connect them to Jewish life on their campuses. CEI is located on 18 campuses and PNEI on 30.
“The Engagement Institute was an amazing experience,” said Emory sophomore Ariel Levin. “PNEI interns at Emory had the opportunity to meet and share ideas with hundreds of other interns from colleges across the United States and Canada in order to get more students involved with their Jewish identities.”
“The Engagement Institute helped us bond with our fellow CEI Interns and prepare for the meaningful journey ahead of us,” added University of Texas, Austin student Daniel Heller of Atlanta. “Our goal is to connect students on campus to Jewish life. I feel that the time at Camp Ramah gave us the tools and motivation to succeed as Hillel interns.”
Many of these student interns work closely with senior Jewish educators, who were also trained at Engagement Institute. Located on ten campuses, senior Jewish educators find new ways to make Jewish tradition relevant to students and staff alike, whether it’s conversation about Jewish texts, drama, music or a variety of other media.
Hillel’s engagement approach is supported, in part, by Taglit-Birthright Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s MASA program and by the Jim Joseph Foundation which granted Hillel a five-year, $10.7 million grant to develop and expand the program, the largest single award in Hillel’s history.
Also at Camp Ramah were representatives of seven campuses who are involved in Hillel’s Small and Mighty Campuses of Excellence Training. This special program is designed to help Hillel advisors at a select group of elite, small private colleges create stronger Jewish communities.
“This new program gives us the potential to ramp up Jewish life at Dickinson to the next level by energizing more students to get involved in Jewish life and giving them opportunities to stretch their Jewish identities in new directions,” said Dr. Ted Merwin, director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College.
Getting their first taste of American college life were 20 Israel Fellows, who are recent Israeli college graduates placed on campuses to help create educational programs about Israel. This is a joint program with the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“The Engagement Institute helped me with networking, ideas and inspiration that I need for my job as an Israel Fellow,” said Kasa Bayisin, the Israel Fellow at The Ohio State University. “Moreover, I had the opportunity to get to know some of the students that I'll work with, the Campus Entrepreneurs.”
Engagement Institute culminated in a pluralistic Shabbaton that allowed participants to explore spiritual, ritual, learning, and experiential ways to celebrate Jewish life.
“Discovering and expressing our authentic Jewish selves was at the core of what was generated throughout the week of Hillel’s Engagement Institute,” said Devora Brustin, senior Jewish educator at the University of Texas, Austin. “We expanded our capacity to share our Jewish story with others in such a way that they are moved and inspired to take action in their own journey.”
Alanta Jewish Times Article August 21, 2009 (PDF File)
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