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Social Justice at Texas Hillel

by Schusterman International Center |Aug 12, 2013|Comments

Julia Barnard.In my first year working with Texas Hillel, I dove into the culture of the University of Texas at Austin’s unique student population as a Repair the World Fellow. I have worked with students on ideas of ethical citizenship, Jewish values, and the connection between the two.

I had the opportunity to apply for this position after my own Hillel supervisor, Malinda Kimmel, saw an opening for a social justice educator position in Austin and thought of me. I was a senior at the University of Kansas with a passion for US history, and KU Alternative Breaks, a secular organization I co-directed, sent over 500 students to 50 non-profits nationwide each year. My work at Hillel has built on my work as an undergraduate, and has given me the opportunity to improve my interpersonal, financial, and supervisory skills. Even more, it has encouraged me to grow with intention both personally and professionally. I couldn’t ask for a better or more supportive entrée into the professional world.

I have been charged with creating a social justice infrastructure at Texas Hillel. Not by my own work but in a larger collaboration, we have consulted with existing service groups on campus, including Challah for Hunger, the Latino-Jewish Student Coalition, Crazy Science Extravaganza, and the White Rose Society. We have worked to build continuity, address advocacy and direct service, and forge new on-campus connections.

I have also initiated a partnership with Communities in Schools of Central Texas, a national drop-out prevention program. We have placed over 30 mentors and tutors in three public schools in Austin, hosted a science fair for over 150 students at these schools, and in 2012, had a successful Chanukah school supply drive to benefit the same students. Concentrating our energies in three schools has allowed us to intervene in some of the more symptomatic manifestations of racial inequality in Austin.  Namely, these programs have combated low performance on high-stakes standardized tests, and targeted self-confidence and leadership skills for at-risk elementary school students. What’s more, many of our student mentors have visited schools weekly to build cross-cultural and interracial relationships with students who are giving them a kind of education they could not receive without direct service experience.

The work I mention represents only one small slice of the total Texas Hillel tzedek experience, and an even smaller slice of all that Texas Hillel has to offer. We are building a relationship with the UT Multicultural Education Center and have facilitated inter-racial dialogues in their space to address ethical citizenship and Jewish values with a different cohort of UT students, primarily those involved in our very successful Latino-Jewish Coalition. Our Israel Fellow, Ayala Peer, has been hard at work on creating a Muslim-Jewish coalition, and has been creating direct service opportunities for students in Israel.

Texas Hillel has developed a powerful Jewish social justice framework. I look forward to many more conversations and plan to continue to help students understand Judaism on their own, 21st century, terms, while connecting centuries-old Jewish ideas with the Texas of tomorrow.

After the first year of this work, I have a more sophisticated understanding of my own professional strengths and weaknesses, and have received expert coaching from my supervisor, Margo Sack. I have been fortunate to participate in Repair the World’s Fellowship Program, the Hillel Mentorship Program, and the Schusterman International Center’s LAPID (Leadership and Professional International Development) program during the last academic year.

All of these excellent professional development and mentorship opportunities have helped me transition into a new role as a Hillel professional by building my national (and international) network, engaging in meaningful conversations about what we do and why, and, perhaps most importantly, encouraging me to reflect and build on my strengths while improving my weaknesses. These programs have included immersive conference experiences that have challenged me to rethink my own Judaism, and to claim all of the contradictions, limitations, and wonders of our tradition as my own. These experiences have been enormously empowering, and, as a queer woman in an inter-faith relationship, have helped me think through my own identity and the future I want for myself and my family. As a recent graduate, a young woman transitioning into adulthood, and as a professional, I have felt supported on and off UT’s campus by Hillel’s team and by my colleagues.

Thanks to my mentors at the University of Kansas Hillel, I have found myself in an immensely gratifying, meaningful, and, I’ll say it, fun professional position that allows me to live a life I love in a city that I love, and to share it and reflect on it with thoughtful students. It allows me to learn about my tradition and to learn about the role of service and social justice in a Jewish context. As I plan for the coming years, I know that I’ll be with Hillel in one capacity or another, and that I’ll always carry with me a deeper view of my strengths and weaknesses, my community, and my obligations to it, and my own Judaism because of my work with Hillel.

Julia Barnard, an alumna of the University of Kansas, has been the Repair the World and Tzedek Professional at Texas Hillel in Austin since July of 2012. She is working on creating community partnerships, getting students to deepen their service and advocacy commitments, and learning about database analysis and marketing work.

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