Penn Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Mike Uram sat down with Hillel News to discuss his new book, “Next Generation Judaism: How college students and Hillel can help reinvent Jewish organizations.” The book, published by Jewish Lights, is now available on amazon.com, in Barnes & Noble and other book sellers. Here are highlights from our conversation (edited for length).
What’s the main takeaway of your new book?
The nature of the American Jewish community is changing rapidly. The book is about how adult Jewish organizations can use what we’re learning on college campuses to reinvent themselves for the future. The book is for any leader who knows that they need to change but feels stuck. It gives practical tools for building a bridge between the Jewish organizations of today and the ones we will need for the next generation of Jews. For example, I explain how our organizations can build two different operating systems – one that helps them keep doing the good work they are doing and the other dedicated to innovation, to helping them reach radically new populations of Jews.
Who’s the intended audience?
Both professional and volunteer leaders of organizations who are looking to reinvent their organizations for the future and who are more focused on making a deep impact in people’s lives than on just ensuring the continued survival of the organization.
What gave you the idea to write it?
The idea emerged from my own personal Jewish story. I always felt like an outsider, and the standard offerings didn’t work for me. To find my Jewish home, I need a set of communities, relationships and experiences to inspire me, not just a Jewish club or one more programmatic offering on a calendar. That’s why I’m at Hillel. We use relationships to help people grow into Jewish adulthood. Beyond that, there’s something so entrepreneurial about working at a university. Colleges reinvent themselves every four years, making them the ideal test laboratory for Jewish innovation. Every form of Jewish life is continually being reinvented on campus. If we see students and millennials as our partners in shaping the Jewish future, rather than the next generation to fold into our existing model, then what’s happening on campus can treasure trove of information about what’s next.
What was the biggest challenge?
There were two major challenges. One was trying to deconstruct all the assumptions I have. There’s a certain amount that someone inside the Hillel world inherently knows, so trying to deconstruct that to bring the reader along was hard. Number two was the tension between wanting to write something really sophisticated that engaged with all the complexities of our work, and at the same time making sure it’s engaging enough and accessible enough for people to read.
What’s something that surprised you?
It’s been a very humbling experience. You need a certain amount of chutzpah to think that you should write a book. I was surprised at how much I had to say; I had to cut a lot. By the time I finished the book, I didn’t feel chutzpah, I felt humility.
How did you fit in the time?
A lot of nights and Sundays. I took a sabbatical, which really helped. One of the amazing things about Hillel is that I can have one foot in Hillel, one foot in the academic world. Working at Hillel has given me a front row seat to the Jewish future. The job keeps reinventing itself.
Breathing (laughs). I envision using this book to promote the work of the entire Hillel movement. I want to make Hillel a central address for innovation and collaboration in the Jewish community.