Hillel conference focuses on engaging next generation

Wayne Firestone, President of the national Hillel organization, speaks at Washington Universty during an international Hillel conference held there last week.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Engagement efforts and reaching out to the next generation were the topics in focus last week as hundreds of professionals and students from around the world descended on Washington University for the annual Hillel Institute.

The four-day centerpiece event marked the first time the 87-year-old Jewish collegiate organization has held the international gathering in a St. Louis venue.

“I think that Hillel choosing Washington University to host the first conference of this nature and magnitude is really a testament to the work that we do as well as the type of environment that Washington University has created for all of its students,” said Jacqueline Levey, executive director of Hillel at Washington University. “It’s really a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to include the St. Louis community in our efforts and be able to share that with the entire Hillel world.”

The gathering was the first of its kind because it was actually two events rolled into one beginning on Tuesday, Aug. 10 with the Hillel Institute for about 400 of the group’s campus professionals. They were joined the next day by about 300 students, who arrived as part of the organization’s Engagement Institute. It was the first time both events had run concurrently. The professionals’ get together had previously been conducted during winter break.

The Hillel Institute concluded Friday while the Engagement Institute for students extended through Sunday.

The highlight was a plenary talk given to several hundred professionals by Wayne Firestone, the organization’s national president. He said that reaching the next generation boiled down to addressing what he called the three I’s: individuality, incivility and Israel.

He cautioned the group against letting fear and trepidation govern their efforts to engage students. “I’m tired of the handwringing. I’m tired of the pessimism,” he said. “I think that our movement has something to offer the Jewish world that shows a different vision about where we are headed.”

Firestone said that the key to communicating with the Millennial Generation lay in discarding stereotypes about today’s college students as self-absorbed or uncaring.

“If you want to understand this generation, you have to understand that they get connections, that they actually get community, that they understand how to act as a group,” he said. “They go through deep experiences as individuals but they process them as groups. That presents a tremendous opportunity to do community building and process issues of identity building in a deeper way than we could ever imagine before.”

Firestone said it was sometimes a challenge to engage students on the topic of Israel since they have never known the country to be under the kinds of threats it faced in 1948 or 1967. Still, he pointed out that 250,000 Jewish college students have visited Israel in the last decade so personal experiences in the region are not alien to them.

“Our job is not to get them to go on a trip to Israel,” he said. “Our job is to think about how, when they return from their encounter, they are able to connect and understand their own questions and identity better, how Israel matters to them and they matter to Israel.”

The president stressed the importance of civility and harkened back to when the organization’s namesake, the sage Hillel, urged welcoming opponents who had been defeated in debate. However, Firestone also stressed the vitality of defending the Jewish State from those who hold ill intent. He lauded the success of the Israel Fellows program, which has sent Israelis to 40 American campuses to act as ambassadors of goodwill and noted Hillel’s completion of an Israel playbook that teaches how to respond to anti-Israel sentiment on campus.

“We should not be afraid to call them out using our First Amendment rights to address the demonization of Israel whenever it occurs,” he said.

Attendee Cara Behneman, the Jewish Student Life coordinator for the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, was particularly impressed by Firestone’s talk.

“I was really inspired by his thoughts on engagement,” she said. “It’s important to make sure that we are making a lasting impression and really instill values that stay with students in their lives.”

The rest of the conference was dedicated to workshops on a variety of topics. Scott Brown, an executive vice-president of the group, said the idea was to encourage more personalized communication.

“What we’ve done is created mini-communities where people can interact,” he said. “It’s a form of modeling. When you are in a large group you are more anonymous. When you are in a smaller group you are more fully engaged.”

Brown, a former St. Louisan who headed the Jewish Community Center’s Camp Sabra during his three years here was also happy to return to town.

“It’s great to be here. But not so great to be in the heat,” he quipped.

Benji Berlow, program director for Hillel of Silicon Valley, Calif., said it was clear the organizers had listened to feedback from previous conferences. He felt the decentralized structure helped make the event more useful.

“That’s what they’ve really tried to do here,” he said. “They are not bringing in people from the outside to tell us what the best practices are but to really learn from each other, from our peers.”

Audrey Bloomberg enjoyed the pre-event intensives. The director of student life at Michigan State University’s Hillel was one of about 90 professionals who arrived as early as Aug. 8 for a round of special training.

“The simulation they took us through addressed what could and has happened on campuses related to the boycott and divestment movement and practical ways of combating that,” she said.

Graham Hoffman, associate vice president of strategy for the organization, said the Hillel engagement methodology represented a change in the group’s focus.

“The fundamental shift for us as an organization is that, we’re no longer operating in a paradigm of trying to create as many programs and activities as possible and get as many people as we can to participate,” he said. “We’re really focused on how we are facilitating Jewish growth for as many students as possible and recognizing that each student is on their own Jewish journey.”

For Jordan Fruchtman, executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, Calif., the strategy was a simple one.

“Our goal is to think about things that we can do in four years of a student’s life that will make them want to be leading a Jewish life when they leave college,” he said.