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What Could College Be? Hillel and Ask Big Questions Attend White House Interfaith Gathering

by JoHanna Rothseid |Jul 16, 2012|Comments
"What could college be?" was the question inscribed on the stones we passed out at the White House Interfaith Gathering at Howard University. On the other side, the URL: AskBigQuestions.org. As members of the Interfaith conference stopped by our table, each picked up a stone and turned it over in their hands - asking themselves not only, what could college be, but also, what could interfaith dialogue look like?


Summer moves quickly at the Schusterman International Center (SIC). As a Hillel Conference Coordinator intern, I am privileged to work with many programs within the SIC in preparation for the upcoming Hillel Institute, a week-long conference committed to connecting, educating, and engaging Hillel professionals, engagement interns, and student leaders. An initiative that I have been working closely with, titled Ask Big Questions, is dedicated to changing the world through better conversation that creates understanding among people on campus, in communities, and around the world.

This past week, Marisa Briefman, my fellow intern, Sheila Katz, Associate Director of Ask Big Questions, and I attended The President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, an initiative to advance interfaith cooperation and community service in Higher Education. Representing Hillel and Ask Big Questions, we partook in an organization fair for national interfaith programs, including Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and the Education as Transformation project at Wellesley College.

JoHanna and Marisa at Interfaith Gathering.

Sheila was a veteran to the process, an engaging smile on her face as she eagerly introduced herself to fellow spokespeople, learning about other interfaith dialogue groups and making connections. I found it easy to talk to the participants, who were just as excited about the program as we. Coincidentally, Rabbi Brian Fink, the Rabbinic Fellow at Cornell University, had introduced Ask Big Questions during a recent seminar, and the name now held a spark of recognition; the attendees were eager to learn more.

We quickly found that people want to ask big questions, and desire to bring interfaith dialogue to their schools in an open, explorative, and non-threatening way. A student from Occidental College labeled herself as "Jew-ish": a Jew, but not readily accepting the religion and principles as part of her identity. Ask Big Questions, she said, could help her - and similar others - explore questions of character and ideology, without the volatile questions of faith or religiosity.

Some conversations were more intricate than others. In one discussion, Sheila mentioned to an attendee that the premise of Ask Big Questions is, in some ways, archaic - universities were founded for identity establishment and collaborative learning. Somewhere along the way, the system got lost. The members of the Interfaith Gathering are looking for a way back, and Hillel's Ask Big Questions initiative provides a method to do so.

In some ways, this notion seems crazy - are we regressing? Or, are we just getting back to basics?


As a college student in a progressing world, constantly told to move forwards and not to turn back, Sheila's aphorism gives me pause. I turn my stone over in my hand, and I read, what could college be? I think further: what is college to me, and what is it to those who attended this conference? Each member was on a quest: searching for ways to build identity, and to help others establish ideology and perspectives in the college arena. By speaking to the attendees, I began to realize - perhaps we should slow down for a moment, and share, listen, and learn more from the people around us.

Ask Big Questions and Hillel encourage us to follow core Jewish principles: learn from others, listen to others. Ask Big Questions promotes interfaith dialogue, inter-community collaboration, and enriched understanding of diverse perspectives. These ideas tie into the question that was being asked at the The President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge: what is interfaith dialogue to you, and what could it look like?

Hillel, Ask Big Questions, IFYC, and the Education as Transformation project, along with many others - are trying to answer that question.

Ask Big Questions Stones.

JoHanna Rothseid is a rising Junior at the University of Michigan. She is currently a Conference Coordinator Intern with Hillel at the Schusterman International Center in Washington, DC.

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