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100 Prompts, Provocations, and Situations for Jewish Growth on Campus

by Rabbi Josh Bolton |Jun 17, 2015|Comments

Josh Bolton.This piece was originally shared on Facebook, and has been re-purposed with permission for this blog, with an introduction by Laura Tomes, PhD, Director of Educational Research and Innovation at the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience.

To live as a Jew is to live a life that is open to the question of the ultimate. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most profound American Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” To live in radical amazement is to recognize that the spiritual is to be found not by retreating from the world, but by encountering it. And to recognize that Jewish tradition has much to teach us about the nature of that encounter.

Rabbi Josh Bolton’s 100 Prompts, Provocations, and Situations for Jewish Growth on Campus offers 100 opportunities for radical amazement from every day encounters. As Hillel educators, our goal is to show students that Judaism lives not only within the pages of the siddur or the walls of the synagogue, but can help us to fill every action and interaction with intention and meaning. These 100 conversation starters offer 100 opportunities to encounter the world with radical amazement, and to demonstrate to students the power of a life lived thoughtfully.

As we all endeavor to provoke and promote Jewish growth on campus, will you challenge yourself or your campus team to undertake these 100 prompts over the next academic year? Let us know by using hashtag #100prompts.

1. Show the video footage of former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, being heckled by pro-Palestinian activists at U.C. Irvine. Ask students: How does this make you feel?
2. Throw a bagel to every person in the room. Ask: In what ways does this bagel represent and embody the Jewish experience and in what ways not? Consider in chevrutah.
3. Give every student $7. Challenge them to donate a dollar a day for one week. Come back a week later and discuss.
4. Read the Bereshit account of Jacob wrestling with the “angel”. Ask students: In what ways has Jewish history embodied or reflected this origin as “wrestlers”?
5. Read the morning prayer, “Elohai HaNeshama”. Ask students: What comes up for you when you read this prayer? What might it mean to say that the soul is “pure”? 
6. Give everyone a copy of “Modeh Ani” and have folks recite it upon arising every morning for one week. Come back together and discuss.
7. Watch the Israeli band A-WA’s single “Habib Galbi”. Discuss.
8. Watch a quality version of Bob Marley’s “Exodus”. Ask students: To what extent is this a “Jewish” song – To what extent does it present the tropes and themes of the Jewish story – both historically and spiritually? To what extent not?
9. Study a map of the Land of Israel that includes both major Jewish and Arab population centers as well as clearly delineates the “Green Line”. Ask students if they have any questions.
10. Invite students into a private Facebook group entitled “Gratitude Reflections” and challenge each member of the group to post 3 “things” they’re grateful for each day.
11. Bring a group of students to a rally or protest. Have them create signs and posters based on values from their Jewish tradition. Following the rally, go get pizza and discuss.
12. Bring a group of Muslim students to meet a group of Jewish students. Have dinner and then have each group generate as many questions as they’d like to ask the other. Come back together and take turns going back and forth, answering as many of the questions as possible.
13. Watch the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, “Palestinian Chicken”. Ask your students to explain the last scene.
14. Invite Erika Davis (author of the “Black, Gay, and Jewish” blog) to visit a group of students.
15. Purchase every student a copy of Heschel’s “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity”. Read any essay. Discuss.
16. Find an online description of the Chofetz Chaim’s stringent rules around gossip and Lashon Hara. Ask students what role gossip plays in their lives and if they can understand the rabbi’s stringencies?
17. Host a Tu B’Shevat seder. Download the Hazon “haggadah” for the occasion. Real wine is a must.
18. Pass around a lulav and an etrog. Discuss.
19. At the start or end of a semester, study the midrash of Nachshon ben Aminadav. Ask students in what ways that embodied the chutzpah of Nachshon over the past semester and in what ways they wish they had embodied his chutzpah.
20. Watch the short (30 min.) Israeli movie “Barriers”. Ask students to name ten different types of barriers represented in the movie. Discuss widely.
21. Read the entirety of the Shema. Ask students: How would you relate to the 2nd paragraph if you were a Cambodian sustenance farmer? How would you relate to it if you were “ancient man”? How do you (might you) relate to it as you yourself?
22. Borrow a handful of sets of tefillin and a bunch of tallitot and gather a bunch of students for whom these ritual items are not familiar. Have everyone take turns “wrapping and donning”. Discuss.
23. Gather ten students in an open space for the sunset. Recite the evening “Ma’ariv” prayer. Sit in silence.
24. Look at a collection of hanhagot from various Jewish writers. Have students compose their own hanhagot – based on the language and style of the historical ones.
25. Open up the claf of a mezuzah. Ask students to explain this ritual technology. Have students compose their own mezuzah scroll – give them pushpins to affix these original scrolls to their doorposts.
26. Gather a small group of really intellectually intense students. Purchase each of them a copy of Buber’s “The Way of Man”. Gather on several occasions to read a chapter from this small book.
27. Read the original “10 Commandments” and then read Archie Gottesman’s “New Ten Commandments for the Jewish People”. First discuss. Then have the students compose their own individual ten commandments. Discuss.
28. Cut up a whole lot of little slips of paper. On half of them write, “The entire world was created for me”. On the other half write, “I am nothing but dust and ashes”. Give one of each to 10 students. Ask them to pull out the former when they’re feeling glum and to pull our and read the latter when they’re feeling overly proud. Have them do that for a week. Gather and discuss.
29. On Erev Shabbat, have students go around and fill in the following blanks: This Shabbat I want to unplug from ________. This Shabbat I want to plug into ________.
30. Introduce the Kabbalistic practice of gerushin (wanderings). Take a handful of students and walk aimlessly around campus for an hour trying to get in touch with the exile of the Shekhinah. Discuss.
31. Give a tutorial on various online Israeli and Jewish news culture websites. Let students survey them on their own for a while. Present favorite articles.
32. Read the first chapter of Bereshit – slowly. Discuss as you read.
33. Study Rav Yosef’s statement in the Talmud (Ketubot 48a) that “There must be close bodily contact during sex…” Ask students why Rav Yosef insists on two people being naked? What’s up with nakedness?
34. Study the midrash’s story of Noah planting a vineyard with Satan. Prepare to answer questions about the Jewish Satan. Ask students: What’s this midrash trying to communicate to us about the complexity of getting drunk and being stoned?
35. Get a bunch of siddurim (prayer books) and have students flip through the section of Birkat Nehenin. Tell them they are on a “Brachot Scavenger Hunt”. Can they identify one blessing that is surprising? One that they have recited at some point in the past? One that they find beautiful? Etc.
36. Cut up the weekly parsha verse by verse. Place all the verses in a hat. Pass it around – everyone randomly selects a verse. Have students go a sit alone for 15 minutes reflecting on how the verse speaks to them and “where they’re at” in life. Come back together and share in chevrutah.
37. Study the very first mishnah of Mishnah Berachot.
38. Read A.B. Yehoshua’s critique of diaspora life published in Ha’aretz several years ago. Discuss.
39. Print copies of the summary of “the PEW poll”. Give students 15 minutes to peruse and discuss in small groups. Come back together. Discuss.
40. Give students 30 minutes to answer the question “Why be Jewish?” Answers must be fewer that 50 words. Do the same exercise but require answers to be 20 words or less. Do one more time – 5 words. Then 1 word.
41. Read Matisyahu’s Twitter post (along with accompanying photo) from 12/13/11. Discuss.
42. Gather a group of students. Ask them how we might understand and relate to the idea of angels. Chant “Shalom Aleichem” (as a niggun, without the words) for 15 minutes. Discuss.
43. Print out copies of the Rambam’s enumeration of the 613 commandments. Give students 15 minutes to explore the list. And give them a set of scavenger hunt questions to guide their exploration. A commandment that’s surprising. One they already were familiar with. One they’d like to find the time to perform. One that is morally troubling.
44. Watch the "Double Rainbow” YouTube classic. Pair this with a Heschel text on “wonder”. Discuss.
45. Invite a Jewish LGBT activist to visit with your students.
46. Invite a young Orthodox Jew to meet with your students for a session entitled, “What’s going on in the mind of a young Orthodox Jew?”
47. Sometime around Hannukah, read David Brooks’ piece, “The Hannukah Story,” in the NY Times from 12/10/09. Discuss.
48. Look at the commandments prohibiting tattoos. Ask students: What right does the Torah have to tell you how to live your life?
49. Place a bacon cheeseburger in the center of a group of students. Discuss.
50. Play Omer Avital’s song, “New Middle East”. Ask students: What does this song mean?
51. Read Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Jaweh and Allah Battle”. Read it again. Discuss.
52. Have students try and retell the Purim story.
53. Ask students about the personal significance (or lack thereof) of fasting on Yom Kippur.
54. Ask students to make sense of the fact that many Jews who eat cheeseburgers all year long abstain from bread during Pesach.
55. Have students consider Kaplan’s statement: “The ancient authorities are entitled to a vote, but not a veto”. Discuss.
56. Consider the mitzvah of Kibud av v’em / Honor your father and mother. Break students into chevrutot to talk about the depth and possible limitations of this commandment. Have students write letters to their folks.
57. Have students look at the calendar of Jewish months and holidays. Answer questions.
58. Have students read the liturgical text for Amelioration of Bad Dreams. Ask students: What power (of lack thereof) might dreams have in your life? Get into chevrutot and share a dream that has “stuck with you”. Why?
59. Read the Rambam’s “13 Principles of Faith”. Discuss.
60. Bring a Sefer Torah into a room with a group of students. Allow them to hold it and sit with it. Kiss it. Open it up and roll it from start the finish – pointing out unique “typographic” and narrative moments in the text. Answer questions.
61. Bring in falafel – with all the “salatim” fixings. Have a student facilitate a “Falafel Tutorial” demonstrating how to properly stuff a pita.
62. Read the Torah’s narrative about Moses not being permitted to enter the Land of Israel. Ask them to reflect on a time in which they too were not able to make it to a long desired “destination”.
63. Invite a Russian Jewish immigrant to tell his/her story.
64. Ask students if the institution of Bar/Bat Mitzvah should be nixed – or significantly altered. Should it be postponed until the age of 21?
65. Ask students: What does the title “Birthright” mean? Do you have a “Birthright” to the Land of Israel? Discuss.
66. Have students attend Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat davening (praying) as “Religious Ethnographers”. Over Shabbat dinner, discuss findings.
67. Watch “Kourtney and Kim Take New York” episode, “True Colors” in which Scott Disick has a mini Jewish awakening. Ask students: What’s going on for Scott? Discuss.
68. Watch Alicia Keys’ music video, “No One”. Ask students: What is this song about? About a relationship between two people? Or about a relationship between a person and God? What evidence in the music video might suggest the latter? Bring in some Kabbalistic poetry. Ask students: What’s the relationship between spirituality and eroticism?
69. Consider several cases of medieval Jewish martyrdom. Ask students: Would you choose death over “forsaking” your Jewish identity?
70. Find an interesting analysis of “Jewish American Princess”. Have students read it together. Ask students how they feel about this terminology and its function.
71. Have students consider the injunction in Vayikra, “Reprove your neighbor”. Bring in some commentary from interesting sources. Break students into chevrutot and have them think about whom in their lives deserves careful reproach of this sort?
72. Take students to a mikvah. Allow them to immerse (privately) if desired. Discuss.
73. Read the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Discuss.
74. Read George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport”. Ask students: Do they identify primarily as Jewish Americans or American Jews?
75. Ask students to talk about their “Hebrew Names” – their origins, etc. Lead a discussion about any subject, where students must refer to one another by using their Hebrew names.
76. Have students tell each other their “Jewish stories” by describing a 1) person, 2) experience, and 3) Jewish idea that have had major impacts on their lives.
77. Play a good version of the “Hora” and have students lift each other one by one up in chairs. Discuss.
78. Using their cellphones, have students take portraits of one another with different facial expressions for a variety of Jewish “things” – including, Yom Kippur, Israel, the Shoah, Bnei Mitzvah, etc. Post pictures on Facebook.
79. Have students explore Ritualwell.org. Break students up into groups of 4 and have them design new rituals for “Upon a Hard Break Up”, “Upon Acceptance into College”, and “Upon Leaving Your First Year Dorm room”.
80. Watch an interview with Rabbi Menachem Froman z”l. Ask students: What does Rav Froman mean when he says he lives in “the state of God”?
81. Ask students: Are Jews white?
82. Watch a collection of recent videos showing police abuse of people of color. Ask students: Considering the injunction in Devarim, “You must not remain indifferent”, what actions have they considered taking to address the injustices that continue to surround race in America?
83. Watch the video of two Israeli police officers beating a Jewish Israeli of Ethiopian decent. Watch videos of the ensuing Ethiopian protests in Tel Aviv. Discuss.
84. Have students turn to one another in chevrutot. Ask them to discuss their relationship with and experience of God.
85. Have students write a list of “10 Contemporary Plagues” that impact our global society. Have them read this list at their family seders.
86. Have students read Rebbe Nachman’s short tale, “The Turkey Prince”. Discuss.
87. Ask students if they’ve received particular “messaging” from parents or grandparents about the need to marry a Jew. Discuss.
88. In a group of students, read selections from Jean Amery’s essay, “On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew”. Discuss.
89. Ask students: Is it cool to be Jewish? Discuss.
90. Have students interview their oldest living relative about what being Jewish “means to them”. Each student will present.
91. Have students perform a “Welcoming Assessment” for a selection of campus Jewish organizations and institutions. Students present findings.
92. Read “The Epistle of the Baal Shem Tov” with a group of students. Discuss.
93. Instruct students to light a menorah (during Hannukah) in a public space in order to “publicize the miracle”. Come back together and process the experience.
94. Watch the Israeli movie, “Sallah Shabati”. Discuss.
95. Watch “Fiddler on the Roof”. Discuss.
96. Consider how the Torah describes all generations of Jews as having stood at Sinai at the giving of the Torah. Read Merle Feld’s poem, “We all Stood Together”. Ask students to envision what they would have been doing, how they would have been feeling, where they would have been standing – at Sinai.
97. Teach students how to give a “D'var Torah”. Then give them all various short selections from Torah. They have 10 minutes to develop “Divrei Torah”. Present.
98. Facilitate a “Le'chaim Tutorial”.
99. Have students compose their “Jewish Soul Resumes”. Present.
100. Teach students the lyrics of “Hatikva”. Sing together as a group. Discuss.

Rabbi Josh Bolton is the Senior Jewish Educator at the Jewish Renaissance Project through the University of Pennsylvania Hillel.

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