By Mindy Zeidman
Everyone has something to teach, and, more importantly, everyone has something to learn. This philosophy behind Hillel's new peer-to-peer learning program, currently being piloted at three campus Hillels, is helping to bring together students from different backgrounds and levels of Jewish observance to learn more about their heritage in an intimate setting. Through the Hillels at UCLA, New York University and the University of Maryland, College Park, students are making new friendships as they tackle everything from traditional Jewish texts to literature, philosophy and Hebrew.
"I see [this program] fostering even stronger, long-term bonds in the community as well as an increased interest in studying Jewish texts in our generation," said Eric Livak-Dahl, a UCLA sophomore.
This new initiative from Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning aims to pair students who have a greater background in Jewish study and knowledge with other students who have little prior exposure to Jewish text study or discussion. The three campuses have all made the program their own, but they all strive to reach students who are passionate about learning.
The success of the program has been far-reaching on the UCLA campus. Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan, educators with the Jewish Learning Initiative – a joint program of Hillel, the Orthodox Union and Torah MiTzion to bring Jewish learning opportunities to Orthodox students at secular campuses – have spearheaded the peer-to-peer program by recruiting participants, matching study partners and providing them with books and other learning materials. The Kaplans are pleased to see the success of the program – and the enthusiasm of its participants – grow each quarter.
"We have seen tons of new – and otherwise unlikely – friendships formed between students who would not have met. Students are sharpening their learning skills by teaching others and students are picking up new skills. People from different backgrounds are gaining from one another's perspective," Sharona Kaplan said. "The most obvious is that students have increased their weekly commitment to learning, in many cases doubling it, because of their peer-to-peer commitment. Students are also taking ownership of their learning – which is unique to the peer experience, and less accessible when learning with a rabbi or mentor."
The Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU is taking a slightly different approach to the program that better fits its campus community. Guided by JLI educator Michelle Sarna, a planning committee of six students from different Jewish backgrounds meets each week to think of discussion topics to present to their peers. The students then break off into small groups to discuss topics such as "Who is a Jew?" and "Is there a soul mate for everyone?" Sarna reports a visible change in the community, as students who attend different Shabbat services but learn together in the peer-to-peer program now meet outside services to talk about what they have in common.
Eric Brief, one of the NYU student coordinators, says this program has helped him find his niche in the community, and he has noticed that students are beginning to listen to one another in nonjudgmental and open settings.
"I believe the program has been incredibly successful because it has begun to achieve its main goal of uniting Jews of different types and essentially shown us how incredibly similar we are," Brief said.
At the University of Maryland, the peer-to-peer program has also ushered in a new era on Jewish study on campus – one that JLI educator Rabbi Elli Fischer says helps him "create a culture of consistent Jewish learning." Fischer holds meetings twice a week for students to come together in different locations on campus and break into pairs after a group discussion.
No matter what shape the program takes on each campus, though, the students and Hillel professionals appreciate the way it has helped to bring together the spirit of learning and the power of friendship among the campus Jewish community.
"It's certainly brought my partner and me closer together, but I really like seeing how many people in our community are forming these kinds of partnerships," Livak-Dahl said.
Mindy Zeidman is a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, and an intern at Hillel's Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center.