Hillel U: A Game-Changer for the Jewish Nonprofit Sector



January 25, 2017

Hillel International’s newly launched education training university Hillel U will equip Hillel professionals with the tools and knowledge they need to better serve Jewish students on campus.

Hillel U will build community and collaboration among the 1,000 professionals working for Hillel on campus and its Schusterman International Center through in-person and online courses, convenings and immersive experiences.

Hillel International Vice President for Talent Growth and Hillel U Adina Danzig Epelman was first hired by Hillel in late 2015 to brainstorm an educational program for Hillel professionals that would serve all Hillel employees around the world. Danzig Epelman’s conversations with Hillel International Board of Governors member Randall Kaplan, Chief Talent Officer Mimi Kravetz, Vice President for Jewish Education Abigail Dauber Sterne and Hillel professionals around the world led to the creation of Hillel U.

“We started thinking about the ways we could meld aspects of the corporate university model with what the academic world has to offer to create something of tremendous value for our professionals,” said Danzig Epelman on the collaborative effort among her, Kravetz and Hillel campus professionals to build Hillel U.

At Global Assembly, Hillel International’s annual conference for Hillel professionals, in 2015, Danzig Epelman spoke with Kaplan and Hillel International Board of Directors member Larry Moses about Hillel U. During Danzig Epelman’s conversation with Kaplan, he voiced his own wish for “something like a Hillel University—kind of like how McDonald’s has Hamburger University,” for professional development. Kaplan had been thinking of this idea for years.

Kaplan and Moses were excited to support the concept development, and now serve as co-chairs of Hillel U’s Board of Advisors. Hillel Central Asia and Southeastern Europe already had a similar, smaller program called Hillel University—some Hillel professionals who worked on that program now work on the Hillel U Field Advisory Committee. 

Concurrent with these discussion, Vice President for Jewish Education Abigail Dauber Sterne was speaking with the Maimonides Fund about building a center for Jewish education for Hillel professionals. Because of the center’s similar function as Hillel U, it made sense to put the center within the umbrella of Hillel U.

The first phase for Hillel U will be the opening of the Center for Jewish and Israel Education, led by Sterne. The Center for Jewish and Israel Education will provide Jewish educational experiences to all Hillel professionals. Because so much of Hillel’s work is rooted in Jewish education, when fully built out, this Center will aim to engage all Hillel professionals in at least one learning experience every year.

The center will focus on three categories: applied learning, which includes topics such as Birthright training, facilitating Jewish conversation and improving the Shabbat experience; Jewish knowledge gaps, which could teach professionals about Israeli history or Shavuot; and general Jewish inspiration.

“Whenever I read any book, it magically comes up in a conversation that week,” said Sterne. “Whatever we’re reading that’s engaging, it spills over and we share it—that should be the case with Jewish ideas, too. They won’t be able to not share it.”

The center launched early December at Hillel International Global Assembly in Orlando, one year after early discussions of Hillel U at the same conference. Two in-person trainings occurred before the conference: a Birthright training and a Shabbat Lab. The lab consisted of brainstorming redesigning Shabbat—how to make a weekly Hillel event even more meaningful. Course curricula are designed and chosen in partnership with the Hillel U advisory group, other Hillel professionals in the field and instructors of the courses, according to Sterne.

Hillel professionals have made it clear there’s a need for what Hillel U will provide. In fact, Penn State Hillel Assistant Director Rob France knows he’ll use Hillel U: He’ll be signing up for another new Hillel U offering that launched at Global Assembly, The Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Supervisory Leadership Program.

“Our staff is our program,” said France. “When you’re investing in staff, and giving them access to being better supervisors or better informed Jewish educators, that has a clear path to help students. More Jewish wisdom means better support for staff to serve students.”

France is excited for more opportunities for Jewish growth. “[Hillel U] will help us navigate change better in a world where the only constant is change,” said France, commenting on his staff’s turnover and evolving roster of student leaders. “I’m excited for the opportunity for all of my staff to experience what Hillel U has to offer and look forward to engaging myself.”

“Now that I’ve been at Hillel for 15 years, I can look at many stages in my career,” said Kansas University Hillel Executive Director Jay Lewis. “Whether I knew I needed it or not, the opportunity to gain more skills, gain Jewish depth and simply be more reflective…all the success I’ve had is because of great opportunities like this.”

Lewis said sometimes there’s a lack of Jewish professional development opportunities for his staff locally in Kansas. Hillel U promises to change that. “Having this internationally is terrific. So many of these development opportunities connect us with colleagues across America and around the world. The most enriching part with Hillel is the ability to go deeper with colleagues, and learn not just from the experts, but also from peers we’re learning alongside.”

“The goal is to help create a culture at Hillel where all professionals see themselves as Jewish educators, and have the tools to be Jewish educators,” Sterne said. “We’re going to be trying a lot of new creative things. Our starting point is that every interaction with a student has the possibility of being a transformative Jewish moment. And our professionals want ideas, experiences and skills to enable them to make the most of every interaction. Ultimately our goal is to provide professionals with what they need to make Jewish life on campus even stronger.”