This story originally appeared in the fall 2016 issue of the Hillel College Guide.
Mia Berman, '18 Johns Hopkins Hillel student (left) and Rachel Underweiser, '19
Just around the corner from Hopkins Hillel in Baltimore is a coffee shop that feels out of a different place and time. You might walk right past Carma Cafe’s subterranean St. Paul Street entrance if it were not for the 10-foot-tall old-fashioned lamp post and the cope of twinkling white lights stretched out high above the scene. Even the menu is quirky: strawberry rhubarb coffee cake, pumpkin pie latte, lavender lemonade.
In short, this place feels authentic. And that’s why Rachel Underweiser (Johns Hopkins, ’19), a new Hillel engagement intern this semester, has invited fellow Jewish student Julia Phoon, ’17, here on one of the “coffee dates” Hillel has become famous for in the decade since the internship began.
Sitting outside the cafe one sultry September afternoon, the students got to know each other over large iced teas.
The two get to talking and Phoon is soon telling Underweiser about her love of guitar playing. And this gives the Hillel engagement intern an idea. Underweiser mentions a group of Jewish guys who are trying to teach her guitar. “Maybe you could form a band with them,” she tells Phoon.
Is peer-to-peer engagement the most efficient way to reach students? Maybe not, but it’s the most effective, said Underweiser. “Each individual is the future of Judaism. If I can help one student discover their place in the Jewish community, that builds community.”
The Hillel College Engagement Internship began in 2006 as a way to expand Hillel’s reach on campus and give students real-life skills — like active listening, empathy and how to build relationships — they would use whether they become educators or CEOs.
Hillel's relationship-based engagement methodology was successfully adopted and scaled across the global Hillel movement — in 10 countries, including the former Soviet Union, Latin America and Europe. Hundreds of international student interns have participated in Hillel's engagement trainings and engaged thousands of their peers in local Jewish life around the world.
“It’s been one of the most successful programs at Hillel International,” said Sheila Katz, vice president for social entrepreneurship at Hillel International. “There have been 125,000 students reached that we can track, but the impact is far wider than that because we have a lot of students using this model.”
Synagogues and youth programs have also adopted similar models, she explained.
UMBC Hillel engagement interns Doni Mayer, '17 (left) and David Atlas, '17
On campus, while many of the students the interns reach out to aren’t involved with Hillel, the goal is more to help them find their Jewish path.
“The goal isn’t to get those students to come to Hillel,” Katz said. “It’s to meet those students wherever they are.”
Interns seeking out and getting to know those students individually makes a key difference, said Katz. Sometimes they need a different connection point to get involved, whether it’s programming around a particular Jewish holiday or something more informal.
Students create Shabbat dinners in their residence halls, she said as an example, which is “not as intimidating as showing up to a larger building for Shabbat with people you don’t know.”
“The idea is to equip them with the skills they need to make a Jewish life for themselves in a way that’s most meaningful,” Katz said.
Six years after his engagement internship at UCLA, David Bocarsly is a community liaison for U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), a job where he is putting to use the skills he learned.
As an engagement intern, “I was able to expand my network, learn about different community members, take that into my knowledge base of how to bring people and what were the needs of the Jewish community,” he said.
Jared Stein was an engagement intern at the University of Maryland in 2012. That same year he donated bone marrow, which he called a life-changing experience.
After that, “I wanted to get involved, I wanted to run [bone marrow] drives. I wanted to educate people about it,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been as successful at running bone marrow drives if I had not been in the engagement internship at the same time.”
For the program’s 10th anniversary, Hillel is adding five new training programs in hopes of adding more interns on campus. There will be more programs for staff to train more advisors, and there will be educators who help the interns throughout the year.
According to Sara Stesis, Hillel’s associate director of student engagement, the two reasons students say they don’t participate in Hillel activities are: “nobody invited them and they had nobody to go with. They need an invite to the table and they need a buddy.”
Hillel engagement interns help fill that crucial need. And it can help the interns find connections they didn’t know were missing.
For University of Pennsylvania alumnus Jordyn Feingold, becoming an engagement intern was a way of becoming involved with Hillel, which she didn’t think was her place at first.
She attended a Friday night Shabbat dinner on campus when she first got to Penn and was overwhelmed by the crowd and not knowing the prayer melodies.
“To a large extent I was like, ‘this may not really be my scene,’” she recalled. “But a couple weeks into my freshman year, I had a sophomore friend who took me on a coffee chat at a cafe on campus and told me he was a campus engagement intern and what that meant.”
Having grown up with a strong Jewish identity, Feingold got to campus and realized she was seeking an outlet for serious Jewish discussion and exploration.
“I was involved in an a cappella group and joined a Jewish sorority, but there wasn’t any Jewish conversation,” she said. After joining Hillel’s college engagement internship program, Feingold began having the Jewish conversations she said she had been “yearning for.”
As an intern during her sophomore year, Feingold sought out students who were in the same position. Together with a sister in the Sigma Delta Tau sorority (SDT) and another intern who also belonged to SDT, Feingold started a Shabbat series called Sisters Dining Together, whose acronym matched their sorority’s.
They had monthly Shabbat dinners that revolved around a theme, and discussed intermarriage and what it means to have a Jewish identity.
Being a campus engagement intern also gave Feingold the chance to meet new people.
“On Monday nights, when we had our meetings, it was a sacred space to talk to each other and vent about what was going on in our lives. It introduced me to types of people I wouldn’t have met that early on in college.”
Another plus — “I’m basically getting subsidized to make friends,” she said with a laugh. “I was getting reimbursed to buy coffee for people, so it made me reach out to people I wouldn’t have necessarily reached out to and engaged them in a way I would not have done on my own volition.”
As the engagement internship heads into its anniversary year, Feingold hopes “that this always continues to exist because it made such a positive impact on my experience and I hope it can be accessed by more students.”