Conversations over coffee



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

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 Fellowship 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 University of Michigan Hillel.