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The (Renovated) House of Hillel

August 18, 2008

Those who know me know that I am a product of Jewish camping. Growing up in central Pennsylvania, my summer escapes to Jewish camp in the Pocono’s were the lifeline that my parents threw me to keep me on my Jewish journey. Being a camper, counselor and unit leader were some of the best life experiences, Jewish experiences and summer experiences I have ever enjoyed, and when it is summer time I can’t help but “think camp.”

So of course, when I was invited to spend the day at Camp Ramah Darom in North Georgia to visit with some Hillel professionals, it was an invitation I could not turn down. And (not so) secretly, I was just as excited about being at a camp as I was about seeing what Hillel was up to. But after just a few hours with the folks from Hillel, I realized that what Hillel is up to might be as interesting as a day in the mountains – and it may be more interesting than a lot of things from my Jewish past and maybe even my Jewish present.

Quite simply, it’s not the Hillel it used to be. And that is exactly what makes it so interesting.

To put my observations into context, when I was at the University of Maryland in the early 90’s I was not a “Hillel guy.” I was in a fraternity and part of a several diverse social groups, attending the occasional Hillel program and being passively involved in a few of their activities. I was not an attendee of Friday night Shabbat programming (by any stretch) but nonetheless appreciated the value of occasionally using the resources Hillel provided. On a campus with a tremendous number of Jewish students, the Hillel of my era had great professionals (Rabbi Seth Mandell and Todd Sukol), some great student leadership, but not a broad-based ‘presence’ on campus.

And that was the Hillel of my memory – something that was there if you needed it, but did you ever really ‘need’ it? Sure there was the back-to-school BBQs and the holiday get-togethers (and of course high holiday services if you needed them), but that was the Hillel crowd, and my crowd was not the Hillel crowd.

So imagine my surprise when I walked into the dining hall at Camp Ramah for the Hillel training conference when I saw…my crowd? Wait a second… had I changed, or had this crowd changed? Well, maybe a little of both, but in any case this group looked like the people I would see at a Friday night party at the AEPi house, not at a Shabbat service. Was my excitement about being at a summer camp making me delirious? I mean, was there something I was missing? Does Hillel seem to get it – or at the very least seem to understand how some of the ‘rules of engagement’ have changed? Or is what I was witnessing simply a repackaging of what Hillel has done in the past?

In essence, had Hillel really changed or did it just look like it really changed?

The answers to those questions are not easy, just like everything else about Jewish engagement. But just like the need for Jewish engagement, those questions bear closer examination.

The training experience I was visiting was for the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (CEI), a project operated by Hillel that employs on-campus students with broad and diverse social networks to serve as paid interns (campus entrepreneurs) in order to engage thousands of uninvolved Jewish students in some Jewish experience (read clearly, ‘a Jewish experience,’ not necessarily a Hillel program). In its third year of operation, the program is expanding to several campuses across the country, building on its success. As preparation for the internship, Hillel brings the students together for some intensive training and experiences that help them engage the involved, while having a meaningful engagement experience themselves.

During a jam-packed schedule of training that the professionals were managing, I, along with some professionals from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, had the chance to speak with two of the professionals with Hillel who are part of the team that developed the Campus Entrepreneur Initiative – Graham Hoffman and Clare Goldwater. In our discussions with Clare and Graham I realized this: it appears that where once Hillel was once solely focused on delivering Jewish programming, they are now (at least with respect to CEI) strategically focused on engaging in the development of Jewish relationships. Where once Hillel was about numbers, they are now about ideas (and numbers). And where once Hillel was stuck in the paradigm of trying to bring students to Hillel, now it is about bringing authentic Jewish experiences to students, regardless of whether those experiences are at Hillel.

I will be the first to admit, I have not been a close observer of Hillel over the years and I am not certain if CEI is truly representative of a change in Hillel’s thinking or if it is an innovative tactic that is (either finally or once-again) having its hour in the sun. What I do know however is I liked what I saw, and it bears closer examination by me and all of us. Just as we study our texts we learn the lessons form our sage Hillel (the Elder) of the past, perhaps in connection with the closer examination of the Hillel of the present, we can make sure we don’t miss some of what Hillel has to teach us for our future?

So with the context of Jewish learning in mind, in the Talmud we read of the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel) and the House of Shammai (Beit Shammai), each often disagreeing with the other a point of text or law. Now, I am not a not a skilled Jewish planning professional (I am not a Jewish professional at all) nor a Talmud scholar. But for the sake of argument and exploration, I present two views on what I saw at the Hillel CEI training – one that I will refer to as the strengths of (the House of) Hillel, and a corresponding view (let’s call it the House of Shammai) that asks the critical questions that should be asked of Hillel. The two viewpoints, like a Talmudic debate, explore in a respectful manner the questions of the substance of the matter, wile recognizing the answer is often what is in-between those two sets of questions.

So to that end, some observations about (the House of) Hillel:

1. With the CEI initiative, Hillel has oriented itself to a post-program and pro-relationship mindset. Now this doesn’t mean that Hillel has abandoned its program structure, it appears it hasn’t. The programmatic approaches Hillel has always taken, it still does (probably with varying degrees of success). But through the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, it has moved the student-to-student relationship to the center of its focus rather than putting the program-to-student relationship as the center. While it still seeks to attract “Core Jews” to engage in with Hillel programming, it focuses on cluster engagement of those Jews in social networks not made up of Core Jews. By putting the interests of students at the center of its focus, it is finding a way to meet Jewish students on their Jewish journeys at the places they want to be met – even if that place isn’t at the campus Hillel center.

2. Hillel is focusing on decentralizing costs while increasing results by leveraging students as engagement entrepreneurs. Even the best professionals have limitations. They can only do so much, with so much time and money. As a result, it appears Hillel has realized that the best engagement tools are engaged individuals themselves, properly trained and incented. In essence, what Hillel is endeavoring to do with its Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative is distribute its engagement costs by paying for multiple intern “touch-points” rather than big, costly programmatic campus recruiting initiatives. Sure the events are still necessary to help identify potential engagement relationships, but they are not the end result, simply a means to an end of developing engaged Jewish students. And by using a distributed network of students, Hillel can leverage the diversity of its resources to reach diverse populations. As smartly observed by the Hillel professionals we spoke to – people (and college students particularly) are attracted to people, not programs. And when you invest in people as your means of engagement, concentrated costs go down, and results go up.

3. With CEI, Hillel is focusing on language, not branding. One thing that most impressed me in our conversation with Graham was the sensitivity to his use of ‘engagement’ language. With CEI, it appears Hillel has recognized the importance of refraining from using loaded words like “identity” and focusing on terminology that resonates with students. At the same time, Hillel doesn’t focus on branding the Campus Entrepreneur Initiative with Hillel logos and branding (just go to the website and see if you can find the word Hillel or its logo anywhere – here’s a hint, its the tiny print at the bottom). Consistent with its focus on engagement, Hillel understands how important the language of engagement can be and how some words (and brands) are more loaded (read as ‘off-putting’) than others. By letting go of constantly branding the initiative as its own, the initiative isn’t met with preconceived notions by the entrepreneurs or the target audience. Make no mistake, CEI is a Hillel initiative – the funders know it, the professionals know it and those involved know it. But Hillel is not focused on having that knowledge work against the success of the initiative. In essence, Hillel has recognized that by letting go, it is more likely to succeed.

4. Hillel started CEI in moderation, and built on its success. The Campus Entrepreneur Initiative was not rolled out to all campuses at once; it was piloted with seven campuses, and resulted in 3,200 engaged students. In subsequent years it has built on its success, rolling out the program strategically and systematically. Rather than go big quickly, it has gotten big results by developing the program in a systematic and well-timed manner. The need for engagement may be pressing, but it appears Hillel realized going too big too fast might result in an inability to make adjustments along the way. And if we all know anything about engagement, it is that the target audience is, well, a moving target.

5. With CEI, Hillel thought strategically, took a risk and is evaluating while still advancing. CEI was a strategic (if not entirely novel) shift in the way Hillel operates on campus, and was undertaken as part of Hillel’s strategic plan. It was risky, because it was unproven and would run the risk of alienating “Core Jews” on campus and on Hillel boards across the country. It required believing that students could be engagement catalysts, and at the same time letting go control of the Hillel experience. It also required new ways of thinking about how and when results are measured. At the same time, Hillel is consistently evaluating the project’s performance while still advancing it in new campuses. It is an interactive project – and Hillel is still acting as a learning organization, while it nonetheless has some professionals that have help make it a thinking organization.

Each of the above observations is a strong argument in favor of recognizing the strategic direction of Hillel and the way it is orienting its proverbial ‘house.’ But as I noted above, the critical part of me, my personal House of Shammai, has some serious questions about what Hillel presents as the brave new future of campus engagement. And those questions are as follows:

1. Is the CEI initiative (and the corresponding post-program/pro-relationship orientation), truly a new approach, or is it a re-packaging and re-branding of old approaches? The saying that everything old is new again is a well-known saying because it has the hallmark of being a truism. And it is fair to ask the question in this case as well – is CEI simply a more creatively branded Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps? After a few hours with the folks at CEI, and despite the amazing energy, it is hard to tell if it is truly new engagement energy being built on campus or the same energy newly-channeled. Is it the same solution, simply tailored to a slightly differently framed problem? And while it seems like Hillel has made adjustments to its old initiatives to make a bigger impact with the new initiatives, is that bigger impact really occurring? And when we talk about impact, how do we define it? That question is old, new, and all-important.

2. Regardless of decentralizing costs, is Hillel making a wise investment in spending more money on the unengaged when those same funds could be used to deliver innovative experiences to Core Jews? Few among us would argue that we should abandon the unengaged, and many people (including me) would argue that we need substantially more investment in engaging more Jews (Core or otherwise) with authentic Jewish experiences. But the key question is: at what cost? And how do we justify that cost? It may all go back to how we define the desired impact of engagement, which is not so easy. But with the investment that Hillel is making in this strategy, it is a question it needs to thoughtfully answer.

3. Different language and limited branding is all well and good, but does it really make a difference? Hillel is smart to recognize that the newest generations of unengaged Jewry don’t respond to some of the language of the past generations; words like ‘identity’ might muddle more than they clarify. But oftentimes using different language doesn’t change the way we think, it just changes the way we reflect how we are thinking. So is Hillel merely speaking differently, or is it truly thinking differently? And while refraining from over-branding may be a way to overcome pre-conceived notions of what Hillel represents as an organization – what does that say about the branding of Jewish institutions in general? If we have to hide who we are in order to advance our agenda, how will these students know that the veiled organization with a forward–looking agenda and tactics is the same organization that they have pre-conceived notions about? When we limit the view of who we are, how much harder is it to later educate individuals about what we did?

4. Is CEI sustainable and is its impact truly measurable? And are we sure those are the right questions anyway? With a moderated and well-timed rollout, Hillel has been strategic in testing, evaluating and adjusting CEI as it grows the initiative. And the numbers seem to bear out, at least on the surface, that there are more students being touched by the initiative then there otherwise would. But are they really? On a comparative basis, how many of those Jews who were ‘touched’ by CEI would really not have otherwise been touched by a Jewish experience in their on-campus years? Revisit my own experience, CEI was not around when I was at Maryland, but I ended up going to Hillel occasionally (for the BBQ), dating a Jewish girl (now my wife) and discovering Jewish authentic experiences (one of my fraternity brother’s homes for Shabbat dinner). Is the different strategy really resulting in different outcomes? And how are we testing the strategy to make sure that is true?

5. Hillel has made some strategic moves forward with the deployment of CEI, but does one tactic make a strategy, or does it make… well… just a tactic? As much as CEI looks like a strategic step forward for Hillel, it alone is not enough to truly transform Jewish life on campus. Campus Hillel leadership structures need to be reimagined and the sustainability of the authentic Jewish experiences need to be maintained. Jewish engagement can’t merely be a job of a few, but a responsibility of a many. And while the approach is different and we should be supportive, perhaps we should not be too congratulatory until we see that the longitudinal results are different. Hillel has some more strategic thinking to do, even if it is off to a good start and critically it needs to figure out ways to deploy new tactics, while still reengineering those tactics already deployed.

And there you have it, the insights of (the House of) Hillel as subjected to a Shammaian critique. But regardless of what one might think of CEI (and whatever the critique may be), it is clear that it’s not your parents’ Hillel anymore. It’s not yours, and it’s not mine. At first review, it is something different, while still rooted in its core values of enhancing Jewish life on campus. And as the new strategies above evidence, Hillel is taking on the role of thought leaders in the way we engage Jews not only on campus, but everywhere. But by being thought-leaders, Hillel needs to keep thinking to meet the critical questions about its direction and its results. It is not good enough to be different, it is only good enough if different equates to success. And being successful means answering the tough questions that are asked and meeting the tough challenges that are presented to it.

We might not all have been part of the “Hillel crowd” when we were younger, but perhaps we should now. That crowd is going places, and not just to a summer camp in Georgia. It is going into the Jewish future – and perhaps we should join the House of Hillel along its journey, while being mindful of those tough questions that Shammai might throw our way.

But let’s still root for the House of Hillel, it has a pretty good record of beating out the House of Shammai. Just read the Talmud.

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