June 12th, 2015. The last day of school at UC Santa Barbara. The last day I would be in the Hillel building before leading my first Birthright Israel trip. The last day of my first year at Santa Barbara Hillel. As I drove away from Isla Vista on that day, I couldn’t help but think of all of these lasts. But for me, these lasts were not marking an end but a beginning, just the start of infusing meaningful Jewish life and experiences to Santa Barbara Hillel.
Now for a first. As a member of the first cohort of the Ezra Fellowship, I have had the unique opportunity to learn with and from a group of my peers, tasked with bringing engaging and substantial Jewish educational experiences to our students. While this fellowship provided me with the tools and community support to change the way we look at Jewish life, I was scared. I reflected on all of the “what ifs” in my head. What if I wasn’t successful? What if I did something that my students didn’t like? And even more, what if I alienated them by exposing them to unfamiliar Jewish ideas?
However, everything changed for me when I stopped the fear of the “what ifs” from affecting my decisions. This breakthrough was precipitated by our Alternative Spring Break, where we took 27 students to Berlin through Germany Close Up. On this trip, I was able to have meaningful one-on-one Jewish conversations, a chance to learn more about these students and their Jewish journeys. Additionally, we explored themes of Jewish life and had significant educational experiences around themes of Judaism and Jewish identity. Spending quality time and reflecting with these students allowed me to refocus and re-channel my energy into bringing these powerful Jewish experiences back to SB Hillel.
The most meaningful way for me to begin to bring about this change was through my student leadership board. I added a Jewish Learning Fellow to the board, enabling us to integrate Judaism into everything we do at Hillel, not just have Judaism be compartmentalized into the celebration of Shabbat and holidays. Additionally, I challenged the fear of exposing my students to unfamiliar Jewish practices and educational experiences by beginning our student leadership retreat with Shacharit (Shabbat morning) services and Torah discussion. Sitting in a circle and having a communal experience around Jewish ritual was a moving and engaging Jewish educational moment. As a student board they also came up with their own b’rit, a covenant that will guide all of their actions and endeavors over the coming year. Finally, the day culminated with the end of Shabbat and Havdallah, a perfect bookend to their day of bonding and Jewish learning.
Being a part of the first Ezra cohort has led to great personal growth and growth as a Jewish educator. By continuing to challenge both myself and my students, I hope to bring more inclusive and impactful Jewish experiences to the Santa Barbara Hillel community.
Hannah Sherman is a self-proclaimed pop culture aficionado and Jewish professional geek, currently serving as the Program Director at Santa Barbara Hillel.