Equipping Jewish teens for the next stage



December 28, 2016

I am writing this blog post from Dallas, where I have just arrived to join some of the most engaged and committed American Jewish high school students who are attending United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) 2016 International Convention (IC), learning together and building the friendships that will create the future of the Jewish people. I came here directly from Israel, where just this week I was with over 1,000 American college students participating in Hillel-sponsored Birthright Israel trips, and another 150 who are spending their winter vacation studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, learning together and deepening the friendships that will guarantee the future of the Jewish people. 

I am so fortunate to spend time with such amazing, committed, smart and passionate young adults! As leaders of Jewish organizations charged with building the Jewish future by working with our young people, we all know we have much work to do, and that the quality of what we do matters so much to the entire Jewish community. But, speaking for Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, I also want the Jewish community to know that our future is bright indeed.  I see it with my own eyes every day!

One of the most frequently asked questions I encounter as I talk to parents and grandparents of students starting to think about college is what Hillel is doing to help prepare students for Jewish life in college and connect them to Jewish life on campus.  Again, while there is more work to do to make these connections, we also have a lot that is already underway, including at USY IC this week.

Hillel partners with Jewish youth groups like USY – as well as BBYO, NFTY and NCSY – to build on teens’ capacity to lead connected, fulfilling Jewish lives when they come to college. And through conventions like USY IC, Hillel equips teens with important insights as they prepare for the next stage of their academic careers and personal development. At USY IC this year, Hillel staff is excited to be giving students a preview of the types of innovative programs they can be a part of when they step onto campus.

Through our Jews of the University program, Hillel is photographing USY students and interviewing them about their personal backgrounds, exploring what being Jewish means to them. These social media campaigns help visually demonstrate the diversity of our community and help students get to know one another and bond over commonalities.

We are sharing our brand-new Engage IRL (in real life) Game Cards, modeled after Hillel’s relationship based engagement methodology, which offer a fun way to promote meeting new people. With over 25 unique engagement challenges, this interactive game promotes inclusivity by pushing students to interact with those outside of their existing social circles.

And we are offering copies of Hillel’s College Guide, which provides great content to help students find the college and the Jewish community that’s right for them and to explore all Hillel has to offer once they arrive as first-year students.

College can also be an overwhelming experience for some, as they leave their parents and begin to fend for themselves. Hillel staff creates a home away from home, a place they can go to combat stresses, step back, unplug and “EngageIRL” with live people in a deep and meaningful way. We want all Jewish high schoolers, including those here at USY IC, to know that Hillel professionals will be there for them on their campus (and Hillel is, in fact, operating on just about any campus they might choose as their college destination). 

But we are not partnering with the Jewish high school youth groups just to help students settle in at college.  We know that Jewish students who have been leaders in high school will make the best leaders in college, and we need them!  To be more precise, other Jewish students need them. Because, as much as some very fortunate Jewish students will arrive at college with already established Jewish social networks and confidence in becoming part of the community, too many others will not.  The proven, best way to engage students who are less connected to Jewish life on a college campus is to have Jewish friends who invite them to Jewish events on campus and design Jewish life targeted at their unique interests.  This peer-to-peer engagement effort is at the core of Hillel’s work on campus, and we know the high school students I am seeing here in Dallas will make a huge difference for so many of their peers.  And once a student is connected to our community on campus, at a time when they are making their own Jewish life choices, perhaps for the first time, they will stay connected for the rest of their lives. 

At Hillel, our vision is to inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.  To reach that goal, we must connect with many students even before they arrive at college. That’s why I’m here in Dallas. 

It’s wonderful being here at the USY IC.  I was a USYer myself in high school, and attended the IC my senior year (IC 1976!).   Kol hakavod and toda rabba to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and all others who sponsor and support Jewish youth groups, and who allow Hillel to share with high school students why we should be an exciting part of their college experience.