Reflections from the desert



March 15, 2016

This piece was originally featured in the Yeshiva University Experiential Jewish Education (EJE) newsletter on March 10, 2016. Learn more about the certificate program at

In January, Hillel International’s Dr. Laura Yares partnered with the Yeshiva University Experiential Jewish Education certificate program (EJE) to co-facilitate a training for the Ezra Fellows. Laura is a member of EJE’s Cohort V. Below are reflections from Laura and Gita Karasov, an Ezra Fellow, on their experiences.

Dr. Laura Yares

I had the great privilege of co-facilitating a training for Hillel International’s Ezra Fellows with Shuki Taylor in January this year. The Ezra Fellowship recruits talented young professionals who have had deep Jewish educational experiences to work at Hillels on campuses across North America. As part of the Ezra fellowship they participate in ongoing Jewish learning, facilitated by New York’s Mechon Hadar, and also in training designed to enable them to think of their work with college students as having the potential to be educational. Our retreat, which took place in the sunny surroundings of Sedona and Tempe, Arizona, was almost a year in the making. Through a series of transatlantic planning phone calls, Shuki and I mapped out the work of Ezra Fellows as engagement professionals on college campuses. By meeting students for coffee, working with student leaders, facilitating events and programs on campus, we realized that the Ezra Fellows’ primary medium of interaction was the conversation. Our challenge was thus set – our retreat should focus on helping them to see the latent educational potential in a well facilitated casual chat. A paradigm for thinking about conversation soon sprung to mind – Judah HaLevi’s Kuzari, a text in which the King of the Kuzars wrestles through the conflicts of determining whether to join the Jewish people – all through conversation.

Our retreat took the fellows hiking in the desert of Sedona to explore their own conflicts around dependence and independence, it introduced them to some of the theories of conflict pedagogy, and it gave them an opportunity to practice bringing conflict into conversation during practice coffee dates with students from Arizona State University Hillel. Our goal was not to convince them that every interaction they would have with a college student in the future must be educational. Far from it! But rather, to give them the tool of conflict pedagogy and an opportunity to map those conflicts onto Jewish texts that give clarity to negotiating them, and thus provide them with a serviceable means to turn small talk into meaningful conversation. To learn that a student moved 3 states to attend Arizona State University, thus opened the door to a conversation about negotiating independence, which in turn opened the door to the example of Bnei Israel sculpting a golden calf at the foot of Sinai, too dependent upon Moses to negotiate their own independence in his absence. The opportunity to co-facilitate this retreat afforded me with a prime opportunity to think through the educational potential of Hillel campus life, and to map conflict pedagogy onto one of the most informal contexts in which our fellows work – the coffee date.

Dr. Laura Yares is the director of educational research and innovation at Hillel International.

Gita Karasov

The importance of  “Jewish conversations” in engagement work was instilled in me from day one of my job at Hillel. However, despite the hours I have spent in coffee shops speaking with students, I now realize that I wasn’t always sure what that meant. Most of my time that I am one-on-one with students, we discuss their upbringings, Jewish journeys, and how they relate to the Jewish community on campus; essentially we talk a lot about Judaism. If I am lucky, the conversation culminates in a direct connection to a meaningful Jewish experience on campus in which the student can take part. If I am really lucky, I spend my time with a student deeply engaged in Jewish learning, putting our questions and perspectives into dialogue with Jewish texts and ideas.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to escape the Michigan winter and attend the Ezra Experiential Jewish Education learning retreat in sunny Arizona. This seminar focused on ways to intentionally and organically infuse Jewish educational moments into our work as engagement professionals. After several days of workshops, I left Arizona with a new understanding that opportunities for meaningful Jewish learning in engagement work are not dependent on luck alone. Bringing Torah into conversations with students requires preparation and foresight, and yet can still feel organic and spontaneous in the moment. Over several beit midrash sessions at the retreat, I sat with colleagues from different campuses processing archetypal conflicts that many of our students face and pieces of Torah from our own back pockets that we felt would resonate with students in those moments.

Then came the best part—each of us was paired with a student from Arizona State University, and we did what we do best—we took them out to coffee. With personally meaningful words of Torah buzzing in my ear, I walked around campus with a freshman, discussing her transition to ASU. I was 2,000 miles from Ann Arbor but the conversation was so familiar. After about 15 minutes, I found a relevant opportunity to share a piece of wisdom from Pirkei Avot that I had been learning just hours before with my colleagues. Bringing text into the conversation gave us a forum to probe deeper into what she was saying based on to what degree she felt reflected in the text. I realized in that moment how different my coffee dates could look if regular preparatory learning became a part of my daily Hillel routine. What if I approached one-on-one conversations with the same kind of forethought I have when preparing for the more formal aspects of my job like running fellowship meetings?

Leaving this experience, I returned to my own campus with a little more color in my face and a burning desire to rethink how I spend my time. As engagement professionals, we must ourselves be engaged in active forms of Jewish growth and learning, so that we in turn can share and facilitate that for others. I feel very lucky to be a part of the Ezra Fellowship, which has instilled in me the value of prioritizing my own ongoing learning as crucial to my success as a Hillel educator.

Gita Karasov is the director of engagement at Michigan Hillel.