Scaling Small for Deep Impact



January 13, 2021

This piece originally appeared in eJewish Philanthropy on January 6, 2021. You can view the original article here.

By Rabbi Benjamin Berger, Hillel International Vice President for Jewish Education

While Gen Z, those born after 1995, are often known for being “digital natives,” like all humans before them they overwhelmingly crave in-person connection. Their adolescent digital lives are often disrupted in college by  life-changing interactions, which we all recall from our own college experiences. Face-to-face connections in classrooms and dormitories, late at night, on the quad, and at the tailgate creates many of the most meaningful developmental moments in their lives until that point. That tribal craving for community leads young people to do the most inspiring and sometimes the most boneheaded or even dangerous things. Of the many assaults of 2020, the deleterious effects of the pandemic on college students and their quest for human connection should rank high. 

Dr. Varun Soni, the dean of religious life and wellness at the University of Southern California reports that 80% of their students have reported a decline in their mental health since the pandemic began. Prior to the pandemic, as has been reported widely, the mental health of college age students was already in a state of crisis. This, of course, has just exacerbated a problem we should all be concerned about. 

While it will take a multi-pronged response to this mental health crisis amongst college age students, Hillel, from day one, and long before, has been deeply concerned with and attending to the emotional and spiritual needs of their generation. Over this period, we’ve come to an evolving understanding of the type of response that will be most effective. We understand that despite the distance we can create communities of friends learning together with an effective educator. To address this need Hillel has expanded its investment in small group learning through our popular program the Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF).

Building on the strength of that model, over the course of the month of January we’ll be running Hillel Winterfest, a global initiative that will feel very local. This initiative evolved out of the growing sense that the need is to scale small rather than large. Hillel Winterfest, which has been launched through the support of the Jewish Community Impact and Response Fund will seed nearly 170 small campus-based groups in seven countries for a few weeks of deep and meaningful cohort based Jewish learning. 

To move from a model of meeting many students with a large one size fits all type experience, we’ve built this out so local campuses will be responsible for building their own cohorts where they can provide for long term connections. But we’ve provided the resources to do so on a large scale. We’ve re-mixed several curricula that speak to the types of questions, concerns, and interests that college students have. We’ve developed a centralized platform for campuses and students to register. And we’ve curated intentional learning kits that will be sent to all participants, meant to send a message of care and continued connection.

Why turn to Jewish learning in groups at a time like this? It always comes back to Hillel. In this case, Hillel the Elder, whose origin story informs moments like this one. The well told story of Hillel being brought in from the cold, snowy roof to be thawed by the hearth of the Beit Midrash within speaks to the ways the rabbis imagined that Torah could warm the mind, the soul, and the body. The Beit Midrash, the place where learning happens, has always been understood as a place that conveys warmth. With Hillel Winterfest, we can create cozy environments of learning that also bring light to a cold and dark time. While the moment doesn’t allow students to be together in the ways they need and we wish, we recognize that there are still ways to break through the isolation. 

We often operate on the principle b’rov am hadrat hamelech – the majesty of the divine is felt in the multitudes. The bigger the better. And in fact, there’s a power in the type of event that brings together broad audiences for a common experience. We’ve felt this with Hillel@Home which is reaching thousands of participants with a wide array of high quality content. We also felt this in the work of Higher Holidays, on which we collaborated with Reboot. With nearly 60,000 views of our high holiday content, we knew we had hit upon a need. Our communal funding structures often reward this work and push us to achieve and boast of our large scale impact. 

While seeking to reach a large scale, we understand instinctively that meaning making mostly happens in small groups. The model we have is minyan – a gathering of 10 with a distinctive purpose. The mishna in Avot teaches us that when ten sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, God’s divine presence dwells amongst them. At this moment, students need to be held in a space where they feel the care of mentor-educators, peers facing the same anxieties they are, and that feeling of the loving presence of the divine that comes from purposeful gathering. That mishna brings its proof from the Psalms which says “God stands in the spaces where people are witnessing God’s presence.” Being seen, and witnessed for who they are, their dreams, fears, and desires is what moves people to connection. Gen Z’ers are looking to be seen by each other, by society for who they are, who they strive to be, and what they can give to the world. We know that happens in spaces like those we’re creating through Winterfest. 

Winterfest seeks to find the middle ground between highly compelling content, but led by local educators in a way that engages people in the ways they need right now. We’re simultaneously scaling small – with the goal of creating many small opportunities for learning while reaching high, trying to reach a large audience that is seeking these types of points of connection. Gen Z’ers are asking us for these types of deep connection points and our responsibility is to see them in this moment and address their urgent needs as growing, aspiring adults. Like the Beit Midrash that Hillel is invited into, we hope the invitation into a community of Torah and the warmth of friends and educators, brings meaning and uplift to them throughout the long winter ahead.