Op-Ed: We tore our Hillel down, an organizational makeover

NEW ORLEANS (JTA) — “Hillel’s not really my thing. That’s not me.”

This is not what you want to hear as a first-year Hillel director acclimating to a new campus. Yet when I arrived at Tulane University four years ago, that’s the refrain I heard as I tried to figure out how a Jewish student population that comprised more than 30 percent of the school’s student body could barely turn out 100 students for its largest events.

Hillel at Tulane had been built on Jewish communal best practices, but it was not actually reflective of the social and religious wants and needs of the school’s more than 2,000 Jews. It was out of touch with the real desires of the demographic Hillel wanted to reach, and the handful of students who participated was cloistered in its own insular Hillel community. We had to change the way we were thinking.

Since then, we have been able to increase participation by 230 percent and boost our fundraising by 78 percent. We’ve quadrupled the number of students we send on Birthright Israel and more than tripled attendance at weekly Shabbat dinners. Students on their own have raised more than $25,000 for various Hillel causes. We’ve created a complete cultural shift, as now our participants are primarily students who wouldn’t typically participate in Jewish institutional life. All in just three years.

How did we do it?

We tore down everything and let the majority rule. Like many Jewish institutions, Tulane Hillel was built by Jewish professionals, not by the people it wanted to reach. It wasn’t Tulane students’ thing because they did not create it.

In 2008 it was run by students who had made being Jewish central to their identities at college. Naturally they created Jewish programming based on their own interests. But this strongly identified group was a tiny Jewish minority on campus. Their social reach was limited because their circles extended primarily to students who already shared their passion for Judaism and their affinity for Hillel. This made it nearly impossible for Hillel’s student leadership, and the organization at large, to meaningfully address the broader campus population — despite offering cash incentives — or even compelling content.

The same could be said of the staff. I realized this in the midst of my search to find an “engagement associate.” Candidate after candidate was well meaning and well qualified in terms of organizational experience and Jewish academic pedigree. Yet I realized I was talking with Jewish professionals like me.

I realized that if I wanted staff who could easily relate to Jews of the Tulane diaspora, they would need to be from the diaspora. So I found in many cases that the more affiliated the candidate’s Jewish background, the less qualified he or she was for the job.

We responded by dissolving the existing student leadership board and sought students who would have never been involved with organized Jewish life. And we gave them the keys to the car.

We did not ask these new students how we could best leverage their social networks to benefit Hillel. Instead we made it clear that our interest was in them and not for the betterment of Hillel. We wanted to know how Hillel could best aid them in furthering their interests, passions and aspirations.

They would redefine Jewish life at Tulane. Instead of designing programs from the top down that we institutionally thought might work, we charged these new leaders with planning programs on their own, and we created a micro-grant pool to fund their ideas. Instead of having an insular group trying to figure out how to reach the mainstream, we let the students of the mainstream reach out to their friends and natural social circles. They would lead Hillel, and their interests would determine Jewish life on campus.

Over the past three years, our student leadership has grown from 35 Jewish insiders to 160 students. The new voices have brought to the table programming that was different from what we might have suggested.

Some were truly unique: an urban farming collective set up in lower income neighborhoods; a university-wide open mic night; an architectural competition for sukkah design on campus. Others more closely resembled programs at other Jewish organizations: a Sunday bagel brunch, a bone marrow drive, sponsored Shabbat dinners.

The new Hillel leaders created an organic recruitment process that altered the culture and perception of who can lead and be part of Jewish life. Their network became our network.

Some of the core students felt initially that their Hillel had been taken from them. In the end the already affiliated found their place and we still serve as their primary Jewish resource. But if we were to reach the broader population, the organization had to be re-created by the broader population.

We brought the outside in — and they aren’t our guests. They are our leaders.

(Rabbi Yonah Schiller is the executive director of the Tulane University Hillel and an adjunct professor of Jewish civilization and Jewish mysticism at the New Orleans school.)

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