It’s a hot day during my first month in DC, and I’m walking into the Starbucks on the corner of 7th and H. Although I understand the drill for “coffee dates” — we interns have been encouraged to ask any SIC professional to meet for coffee to get to know them better — I have no idea what to expect from the next hour. As my coffee partner and I settle into a tiny corner table, we instantly leave our work behind us, since for the past several days we’ve been collaborating on final curriculum edits together, and we shift to my summer experiences thus far. My coffee partner quickly seizes on a community service project that I first became involved in seven summers ago, and seems to want to know more and more about it. By the end of our time together, she has sprinkled me with questions, offered her feedback on the project, and suggested some similar opportunities she deems fitting for me.
Walking back to 8th and H afterwards, I feel like I’ve made a new connection with someone who understands what’s important to me and makes me feel empowered to harness that passion into further action. Two weeks later, I receive an email from her about a project similar to the one we discussed, taking place in Ethiopia. “I thought of you when I saw this,” she writes.
That same knot of anticipation creeps into my chest about a week later, as I sit down at a long table by the window on my next coffee date. This time, it’s with a senior professional at Hillel – one with whom I’ve only spoken on a handful of occasions – and I’ve been advised by others to come prepared. Yet as our small talk dissipates, he leans in and says, “So, tell me your story,” and my nerves dissipate, too. While I begin by covering my childhood at a Jewish day school and proceed to my involvement at the University of Michigan Hillel, his interest seems to peak when I mention my love of working with children. This leads our conversation down a slightly different path, centered on post-graduate opportunities that might allow me to cultivate this interest.
A third coffee date begins with much the same sense of uncertainty, but quickly evolves into something entirely new: a discussion about what I strive to do as a leader in college, the missing pieces in my school’s Hillel environment, and how I might attempt to fill those gaps myself. Though these topics may seem abstract, I leave my coffee date with an altered idea about how to reach students more effectively, how to relate to fellow leaders, and how to help students achieve more solid Jewish experiences. It is a new perspective on who I want to be on campus.
Looking back, I realize that, in many ways, my string of coffee dates actually epitomizes my experience as an intern at the SIC, helping to plan Hillel Institute. While I could often not anticipate what my hour-long stints at Starbucks might look like, I was able to adapt to whatever my coffee date happened to throw at me, and even develop comfort in that space.
Similarly, as an Institute intern, I cannot necessarily anticipate my next assignment when I enter my supervisor’s office; I must always take what comes my way – no matter how unexpected or intimidating – think on my feet, and determine how to make it work. And perhaps most meaningfully, whether I’m finishing up at Starbucks or staying late in my cubicle to put the final touches on an assignment, I’ve found that in almost every conversation and project I’ve taken on alike, I’ve been able to glean some new insight about my identity as a young Jewish leader.
Emily Steinberg is a Conference Coordinator Intern with Hillel at the Schusterman International Center in Washington, DC. She is a rising junior at the University of Michigan, where she is co-chair of Challah for Hunger and co-founder of a new student group called Breaking Barriers, which is dedicated to forging relationships between Jewish students and students of other religions.