Margo Sack, Texas Hillel’s long-time director of Jewish student life, reminds me daily that we’re in the business of creating meaningful experiences and that is best done one person at a time. The big Shabbat dinners with hundreds of students, the annual mega-events to celebrate Israel on campus, even the immersive trips around the world – all are simply mechanisms to meet students so that we can get to know them as individuals and enrich their lives. We shouldn’t confuse our delivery mechanisms with our product. Our product is the vision of committed, knowledgeable and confident Jewish adults. Every interaction, every dollar raised and dollar spent, every moment as a Hillel professional is in pursuit of that vision.
We are in the business of meeting people and enriching their lives. New students, returning students, prospective students, alumni… every person we reach is a vessel of a thousand stories and we have to hear them all to ensure that no one gets missed. It is exhausting and rewarding in equal measure.
What I’ve learned in the last eight years is that the same approach we take with our students also applies to the other relationships that are critical to Hillel’s work. Our staff, board members, and funders deserve the same kind of personalized connection to and through Hillel that lets them know that our work is not about the numbers only, it’s about the relationships we build with them.
If we are not enriching student lives, we aren’t meeting our mission. Likewise, if we fail to enrich the lives of those who make that mission possible, we will never move from where we are to where we aspire to be. We will always be, at best, just good enough. The Jewish people deserve our best.
No organization is better positioned than Hillel to connect people with Jewish life, learning and Israel. In an age that is so often virtual, we bring people together in real time, face-to-face. We do this at the nexus of the Jewish and university communities, with significant presence in the places where our people are now and will be tomorrow. This ability to bring people together is central to Jewish identity formation because Judaism must be lived with others. We’re of course on Twitter and Facebook but those, too, are just delivery mechanisms. It’s the face-to-face convening that transforms lives.
I am a Hillel director on a large campus. The students engaged by our Hillel come from all over and will scatter when they graduate. Some are from growing communities, others from places whose Jews are moving elsewhere. But we know for certain that there has been active Jewish life on this campus for a century and there will be for many years to come. This is where the Jewish people are – on campus. And that is why Hillel is here, too. We need to meet them on their terms to connect them to their identities and each other. There is no better place and time to do that than on the university campus.
In a few months I will no longer be a Hillel director. So what will I take with me when I leave? A lot of burnt orange clothing, for one. Several Nalgene bottles of varied vintage with different Hillel logos. A few hundred name lanyards. Plenty more Facebook friends than I really know. But those are delivery mechanisms.
As a Hillel director, I’ve been in the business of trying to enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. Without a doubt my life has been enriched by being a part of other’s experiences. I’ve officiated more than a hundred weddings, named babies, mourned losses, and been present for transformative moments in the lives of countless people. Each has changed me in some way, and I know that I am better today than when I first arrived at Texas Hillel. It’s all about the people. I will take with me every memory of every interaction, large or small, and the knowledge that what at times seemed like running a business was really a collection of moments that were in pursuit of something larger than any of us.
I’ve been part of a movement whose brightest days are still ahead.
David Komerofsky is Executive Director of the Texas Hillel Foundation at The University of Texas at Austin.