Category Archives: Hillel Professional Conferences

Initial Meeting of Hillel International’s Circles of Educational Excellence [Throwback Thursday]

At the opening gathering of Hillel International's Circles of Educational Excellence
At the opening gathering of Hillel International’s Circles of Educational Excellence

In December, immediately prior to Hillel International’s General Assembly, I took part in the first meetings of the first cohort of Hillel International’s Circles of Educational Excellence. Beginning on Sunday night with some introductory activities, the group got going in earnest on Monday morning, continuing on through mid-afternoon.

Consisting of the executive directors and rabbis/Jewish educators of nine Hillels in addition to some other staff leading the group, my wife and I representing Beach Hillel were the only Hillel from the western half of the US. The other eight were comprised of five Hillels from the Midwest and three from the northeast.

A historical discussion about the Senior Jewish Educator program
A historical discussion about the Senior Jewish Educator program

While it was not a frontal presentation, it relied heavily on leveraging the shared experience and brainpower of the group to help generate ideas and share what we do.

An interesting treat was to hear from some people who had been involved with the Senior Jewish Educator project, both from Hillel SIC, individual Hillels, and the Jim Joseph Foundation. It was quite informative to hear about its history and about different models of its deployment.

Eric Fingerhut addressing the group
Eric Fingerhut addressing the group

We also got to be visited by Eric Fingerhut and have him speak to our group, which was nice to have him express his interest in this initiative.

We then split up into three different groups according to how roughly similar our campuses were, which was interesting. After that, we mapped out our campuses and our assets, and then we moved to developing an educational experiment with measurable outcomes.

Unfortunately, due to time, we were unable to come back together to share what our educational experiments were with the other groups to bounce our ideas off of each other, to strengthen them. It would definitely have been great if we had had the time even to just get back into the sub-groups to share our ideas and to see how they would be and be sharpened.

We then bid each other adieu and off to Hillel International’s first-ever General Assembly.

Hillel Institute 2013 [Throwback Thursday]

With Rabbi Daniel Levitt, a fellow YCT alumnus
With Rabbi Daniel Levitt, a fellow YCT alumnus

With the current Summer Hillel Institute taking place at the moment, I figured this would be a good opportunity to share some of how I was enriched from taking part in this professional development gathering.*

Rabbi Daniel Smokler leading a lunch and learn discussion at Hillel Institute 2013
Rabbi Daniel Smokler leading a lunch and learn discussion at Hillel Institute 2013

The clear highlights for me were attending Rabbi Daniel Smokler’s sessions.  He did one with a bunch of Jewish educators, rabbis, etc., which was amazing as we were flying through ideas, tools, and methodologies – it was very impressive.  I was greatly enriched by it, especially getting a perspective on how different Jews (especially generations of Jews) conceive of their Jewish identities differently.  An important tool that he shared with us was his description of a Conversation Arc, which is very helpful, especially to move beyond simply schmoozing. Another key takeaway from it for me was – in his describing primary elements for us to share with our students – the importance of community for students.  His presentation is worthy of a lot of time, writing, etc.  However, Rabbi Smokler permitted me to record his excellent session, so you can listen for yourself, which is available here (I have listened to it multiple times, despite having been in the room).  Another opportunity I had to hear Rabbi Smokler was at a lunch & learn session – to which I chose to go – and also enjoyed.

Another major session I attended was about fundraising. I was hoping it would be about making asks, conversing with donors – skill sets for raising money. Unfortunately, that had been going on during the sessions I was with other Jewish educators.  So, since mine was for development professionals  about thinking about time spent on development and coming up with a development plan etc., I departed in the midst of it.

Rabbi Julie Roth of Princeton Hillel speaking while Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman  of Berkeley Hillel looks on in their session on qualitative data for Hillels
Rabbi Julie Roth of Princeton Hillel speaking while Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman of Berkeley Hillel looks on in their session on qualitative data for Hillels

A two-part session I attended was incredible.  The executive directors of Berkeley Hillel and Princeton Hillel for presented on not only coming up with qualitative metrics (which is, apparently, rare amongst Hillels) but also skillfully weaving it with their vision, goals, mission and strategies. Afterwards, it dawned on me that the phenomenal material and ideas shared would be amazing for ALL Hillel staffs to be considering.  I was fortunate in that I was able to convince the executive director of Berkeley Hillel to share some of this incredible work at the west coast Hillel staff conference in the winter (which I co-chaired).

I also want to give sincere appreciation to my alma mater, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, for sponsoring the handful of alumni to get together for some beers, which was a nice way not only for us to re-connect, but also to share ideas, materials, etc.

Awards Ceremony at Hillel Engagement 2013
Awards Ceremony at Hillel Engagement 2013

Finally, I thought the award presentations were done phenomenally – I have consistently been impressed at how well-run these award presentations are done, year-in and year-out – it is a good model for the rest of the Jewish world.

A couple of realizations I had while attending the conference:

  • Since many of our students are not particularly keen on looking at printed texts and discussing them, I thought to move towards a discussion model, less focus on printed texts in front of us.  That doesn’t mean necessarily getting rid of them altogether, just not always having to rely upon them.
  • Not bothering to put together a monthly pdf and print newsletter anymore.  I had been doing them for most of my time in the position (3.5 years to be exact). However, the amount of people actually  reading them is too few to justify the time and energy I spend on them. Better to just post stuff on Facebook.

Every time I have attended Hillel Institute, it has been greatly enriching professionally and encouraging in our line of work, as well, especially to give us an energy boost moving into the new school year.  (And, yes, I am sad that it moved.)

* Also, this blog was not present at the time, coming into existence only a few weeks later.

WHO 2013

Eric Fingerhut speaking at WHO 2013
Eric Fingerhut, the president of Hillel International, in conversation with Jackie Tolley as part of “Inside the President’s Studio”

A month ago, I not only had the pleasure of attending a conference for Hillel professionals on the west coast, I also co-chaired it!  Taking place December 16-18, it was a good mid-year opportunity to reconvene with fellow Hillel professionals!

Every year that I’ve been serving as the rabbi for Long Beach Hillel, there has been – in addition to the annual national Hillel staff conference in the summer – a west coast Hillel staff conference in the winter.* So, for the past four years, the conference (called WHO, which stands for Western Hillel Organization)** has taken place in the middle of December at Brandeis-Bardin, which is a great place for Jewish conferences 🙂  In the four WHOs that I have attended (2010-2013), it is a great opportunity to connect and re-connect with Hillel colleagues in the Western part of the country,*** it is a nice opportunity to choose from a variety of sessions, and, it is significantly more casual and intimate than the national Hillel staff conference, since everybody is on the west coast and it’s a much smaller geographical pool (that’s not a knock on the national Hillel staff conference, which I have always enjoyed).

Rabbi Aaron Lerner speaking at WHO 2013
Rabbi Aaron Lerner speaking at the plenary Jewish learning session at WHO 2013

This year, my wife and I were selected to serve as co-chairs for the conference and were luckily assigned to have the very capable Alison to serve as our assistant co-chair (especially to liaise with Brandeis-Bardin).  The three of us spent time to put it together, meeting up at the USC Hillel a half-dozen times or so, as well as emailing, etc.  At the national Hillel staff conference, known as Hillel Institute since I’ve been involved, we held an informational breakfast for western Hillels, which is a pretty typical event at Hillel Institute.  However, we decided we should have a fun thing to promote the conference; thus, we handed out sunglasses with #WHO2013 on them for our fellow west coast Hillel colleagues to have and to use to keep WHO on their minds for their winter plans.  We were glad that were able to gather about 50 of our colleagues to attend!  One of the crazy things that happened, though, was that my wife had a baby three weeks before he conference!  This was definitely a crazy twist on planning this conference.  Not only had she been on maternity leave for the month previous to the conference (although she did some work on it in December, despite recently having given birth to a baby), but I was also involved with our transition to having three children, along with having family in for Hanukah!  A lesson to be learned: it is not easy to run a conference with you or your spouse giving birth to a new child less than a month beforehand!

YCT guys at WHO 2013
With Rabbi Aaron Lerner and Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, fellow graduates from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School

One of the difficulties in planning such a conference far in advance, since most of the sessions are led by our fellow Hillel colleagues, is ascertaining who will actually be attending.  We had met in the spring and summer and didn’t know who would be able to come or not. It seemed that the biggest challenge in having our colleagues attend was the challenge of funding their attendance, since many Hillels are so cash-strapped that they are not able to carry out the important task of professional development for their staff.****  Another was the matteer of who would still be with Hillel!*****  So, we had to still ask our colleagues to present in the weeks leading up to the conference, which, unfortunately made it seem as if we hadn’t planned so far in advance, but we had to work with whom we had attending.

Social Media panel at WHO 2013
Moderating a social media panel, featuring David Harris and Yechiel Hoffman

At the end of the previous year’s WHO conference, there was significant amount of feedback concerning what our Hillel colleagues would like to see at the coming year’s WHO conference.  Two primary elements emerged from this: 1) a nicely-sized list of topics to be discussed (which helped us out in crafting our schedule to determine what should be included) and 2) inviting Chairs/Presidents of the Boards of Directors from the Hillels.  The aim in this latter suggestion was that, since the Hillel staff not only got a lot out of the conference, but also that there’s a great energy there and ability to focus on Hillel issues, we should invite them to come for a day.  So, we were tasked with creating this BOD Chair day to be incorporated into the WHO conference.  Since such a thing had never previously occurred, it was a bit tough to get them to attend, since it was not part of the west coast Hillel culture, but we were able to get a nice size for the first such occurrence.  However, we were able to get a significant number of them due to the attraction of the new president of Hillel.

Adam Pollack leading a session at WHO 2013
Adam Pollack of Birthright NEXT leading a session on Taglit-Birthright Israel follow-up

One thing we knew as soon as we were asked to co-chair the conference was that, since Wayne Firestone had already announced his departure from Hillel, there would be a new head of Hillel.  So, we endeavored continuously (primarily Alison) to secure the new Hillel president’s attendance and speaking at WHO.  Fortunately, we were able to have the new president of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, not only speak and attend for a day, he stayed over a night and was able to have many conversations with various executive directors of Hillels.  Eric Fingerhut spoke initially, in a “Inside the Actor’s Studio”-style interview, about Hillel, addressing all who had assembled, which was fantastic.  But, what was next was really fantastic: Eric Fingerhut was involved in a Q&A with directors, rabbis, certain other staff members, and BOD Chairs.  It was great not only to hear him speak, but also to really hear the voices and ideas of the west coast Hillels!  Although that was the extent of what we had scheduled him in to speak, he graciously agreed to an executive director’s request for a late night conversation with senior staff after the end of scheduled programming.  Wow – despite everybody, especially Mr. Fingerhut, being tired – it was a really great session, especially since significant topics were discussed in a candid manner!  I think having Eric Fingerhut there really provided a special element that energized the west coast Hillel staffs (and lay leaders) in not only having a connection with him and to hear him, but also to have their concerns heard by him.

Although the conference largely followed a similar schedule as had been done in the past, we inserted a couple of things that were not previously done.  The first of these was to, instead of having a plenary speaker address us, we would have a panel discussion.  Since one of the topics that was on the list of topics to be discussed was social media, we decided to have a social media panel!  Although we had planned for there to be three panelists, with moderation by yours truly, one of the panelists, unfortunately, had a work commitment out of which she could not get.  However, it ended up going really well, since the two panelists had a rapport with each other and we were able to engage the audience and make it less of a sage-on-the-stage style of panel presenation and more of a large conversation (with our panelists leading, of course).  One of the feedback elements we got was that it was nice not to hear a lot of insider-y jargon in the course of the social media conversation, which is definitely an advantage of having non-social media professionals speaking.******  The second of these things that we did that hadn’t been there was to have a special nighttime learning session post-dinner on the first night.  Since the post-dinner timeslot is often an empty space and there are not usually sessions, per se, we inserted this special optional learning session in.  Also, since there is typically one Jewish content/learning plenary session, that is usually the extent of the Jewish learning, we decided we could slip one in with a bourbon-tasting!*******

Rabbi Drew speaking at Bible Bourbons and Boundaries
Speaking at “Bible, Bourbons, and Boundaries”, a special addition for this year’s WHO

One of the highlights (at least for me), sessions-wise was Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman’s presentation on what and how Berekeley Hillel is doing data collection.  Now I had heard him and the director of Princeton Hillel speak at Hillel Institute about what they were doing in the realm of data collection and thought it so fantastic and new/rare in the Hillel world, that I just had to get Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman to speak on what Berkeley Hillel is doing.  Not only are they engaged in quantitative data collection, but they are also creatively involved with qualitative data collection, a matter for which I think there is a great need in Jewish organizations.  Hearing Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman come and speak on this topic, allowed me, of course, to be inspired again in thinking about this matter, but also to have staff at other Hillels to hear about what they are doing and maybe they will also do it.  We also had Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman speak speak to the BOD Chairs on this matter, since I thought they would find it of interest (our BOD Chair found it interesting!).  I am curious to see how Berekeley Hillel’s project comes along and to see if/how other Hillels incorporate/implement such data collection.

Adam Naftalin-Kelman leading metrics session at WHO 2013
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman leading metrics session at WHO 2013

I am very glad that we were able to be involved with this conference in such a way and to be able to coordinate such an enriching and energizing opportunity for our Hillel colleagues, enabling them to take that energy and those ideas back with them in serving the young Jews who are students on their campuses.  Now that it is over, it is definitely nice to feel good about it and to hand it off to someone else to run in summer 2015 🙂



* However, our first winter, there actually wasn’t one, since there had been a change from national Hillel staff conference taking place in the winter and the west coast Hillel staff conference taking place in the summer, so it was a transition time, where there was no staff conference that winter.  But, we were new, so we didn’t know we were missing out at the time.

** Previously, it had been known as WSHA, the Western States Hillel Association, until Vancouver Hillel said they were in a province and not a state.  So, it was changed to include them.

*** I haven’t seen Vancouver Hillel there in my time.

**** As a matter of priority, Rachel has included attending both WHO and Hillel Institute into the budget for all of the Beach Hillel staff.  Yes, it’s important to be able to pay the salaries of Hillel staff, but their professional development should also be included into the annual budget.

***** We had a colleague who had agreed to be a presenter and then left Hillel to pursue an advanced degree a month prior to the conference.

****** This is not a knock on social media professionals; in fact, the panelist who was unable to speak is a social media professional.

*******   The story behind its creation was that one executive director had jokingly inquired if there would be a bourbon-tasting there (we knew each other liked bourbon) and I said it wasn’t going to happen.  However, when I recounted to my wife that I had received his email, she suggested I could do a version of my Tastings & Texts series.  So, we decided to do just that: have a bourbon-tasting accompanied by a discussion of the prohibition of intermarriage of intermarriage, although I had to fit the content into the time, so it turned out to be “Bourbon, Bible & Boundaries” (nuptial boundaries, that is) and it resulted in a surprisingly great turn-out!  Who knew that Hillel professionals enjoy bourbon (all three of the bottles got polished off) and are curious to discuss intermarriage!

Sad About Hillel Institute Moving

Hillel Institute 2010-2013 Logo
The national Hillel staff Conference was held in St. Louis the last four years

Ever since Rachel and I came out to begin working with Long Beach Hillel, we have enjoyed attending the annual national Hillel staff conference in St. Louis at Washington University.  Entitled “Hillel Institute” and organized by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the conference, which took place at the gorgeous Washington University campus, lasted a few days long, with some sessions either taking place prior to the beginning of the conference proper, or following it for new professionals, new directors, and others.

Attending my first Hillel Institute in 2010, holding cookies with the conference's logo
Attending my first Hillel Institute in 2010, holding cookies with the conference’s logo

We have looked forward every summer to gathering with our colleagues across the country (no matter how hot it can get in St. Louis in late July or early August) (and, yes, I love getting together with my fellow YCT’ers), with the West Coast Hillel Staff Conference (WHO) taking place every December and re-connecting with our west coast Hillel colleagues.  One of the elements I have enjoyed about it is that it is centrally located in the country, meaning that both coasts have to meet in the middle and those in the middle of the country can more easily make it (granted, I am a midwesterner, so I am a bit biased).

Hillel Institute Changing for 2014 Announcement
Hillel’s announcing changing of timing and location of Hillel Institute for 2014

However, last week, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life announced that they were switching the conference cycle.  They are now moving the national Hillel staff conference to December to the east coast. Although many of my colleagues might be excited about this change, I have enjoyed meeting up in the warmth of the summer and beauty of St. Louis coupled with the beginning of the school year with its energy, the potential, and the anticipation for the oncoming school year.  Of course, there’s also the opportunity for new Hillel professionals to meet each other; however, they will still keep some programs there, such as a new professionals, etc., although it won’t be the same….

I think this change will take me some more time to process….  In the meantime, I will be attending the annual West Coast Hillel Staff Conference next week (of which, I am one of the co-chairs) and am looking forward to connecting with my west coast Hillel colleagues then/there 🙂

Working on the 2013 West Coast Hillel Staff Conference

YCT Rabbis at WHO 2010
YCT Rabbis at WHO 2010

Since I have worked in my current position, included in which is serving as the rabbi for Long Beach Hillel, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life holds an annual [inter]national staff conference in St. Louis, known as Hillel Institute, at the beautiful campus of Washington University either at the end of July or the beginning of August. It’s an excellent opportunity to connect with colleagues; learn new techniques, skills or ideas; and to regroup for the new academic year. In addition to this professional development opportunity, the West Coast Hillel staffs have an additional professional development opportunity in the middle of the academic year. The West Coast Hillel Staff Conference, known as the “Western Hillel Organization” (WHO, for short), has been held in the middle of December, usually during finals week (of the semester schools and the week following finals week for the quarter schools) at the very welcoming Brandeis-Bardin Campus of AJU, just north of LA.

Drew Kugler addressing last year’s WHO about having difficult conversations

WHO is not only significantly less expensive (about a quarter of the registration fee), but is also much closer than St. Louis, so many Hillel staffs can simply drive there rather than needing to fly there (which, in the last few years, has become more expensive). Moreover, since it’s just the West Coast Hillel staffs, it’s a more intimate atmosphere, more laid-back, and there are greater opportunities for discussing geographically-relevant matters (e.g. a couple of years ago, the staff members of the Hillels who work with campuses of the California State University got together to discuss how the process was for getting the study abroad to Haifa University to be reinstated was going and what we could do (eventually, it did)). In addition to seeing how geographically-proximate Hillels can work together (e.g. a few years back, some of us got to spend some of our time there working on an upcoming student leadership gathering), it also has offered intimate settings to have break-out sessions to learn skills, share best practices, and to get a better sense of what possibilities lie out there in our work.

WHO Breakfast
Some of the West Coast Hillel staff members attended a breakfast at this year’s Hillel Institute to hear about the plans for this year’s WHO

Having attended WHO for the past three years, I have enjoyed the atmosphere, collegiality, and more. WHO has been chaired every year by two directors who put together the schedule, promote WHO, and serve as the MCs for the conference. Toward the end of last year’s WHO, however, the powers that be selected my wife, Rachel, who is the director of Long Beach Hillel, as well as me to serve as the co-chairs (and we accepted) along with Alison Levine of USC Hillel to serve as our assistant co-chair. So, this year, the three of us have met up several times (and will continue to meet up (for instance, we have a meeting today)) this year and to put it together for December. We also held a breakfast meeting at Hillel Institute for West Coast Hillel staffs to update them on how WHO is looking for this year as well as to put it on their radar. We are all looking greatly forward to this year’s WHO and making it great!

Hillel Institute 2013

Hillel Institute 2013 LogoFor the fourth consecutive year, I attended the annual Hillel staff conference, Hillel Institute, in St. Louis. As with the previous two years, I was there due to the financial support of Long Beach Hillel (I had to raise money from private individuals to make it possible for me to attend in 2010), which makes sense, since in my capacity of serving as the rabbi for Long Beach Hillel, I am involved in various ways in its functions.  Moreover, attending Hillel Institute, has – every year – helped me focus me for the new academic year in getting ready for our work as Long Beach Hillel.  That was especially true this year.

Eric Fingerhut, the new President of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, addressing the staff of Hillel in St. Louis at Hillel Institute 2013

As in years past (see here and here), it was great seeing fellow Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduates at the conference!  It was also great to meet Long Beach Hillel’s new programming associate and to experience the great amount of energy he is bringing to the position and to the Hillel, writ large.

In addition to the above, the two sessions out of which I got the most were a session with Rabbi Dan Smokler, which was phenomenal and I need to review my notes, since it was incredibly helpful for how I think about going about my work.  The other was a very thought-provoking session on qualitative metrics for Hillels (a topic of interest of mine as evidenced here and, subsequently, here), led by the executive directors of Berkeley Hillel and Princeton Hillel, in which they shared the great work they are doing in gathering and analyzing the qualitative data regarding their Hillels.  I was glad to see not only that it was being done, but also to see how they were doing it.

Even though Hillel Institute 2013 occurred six weeks ago, I am still unpacking the material, ideas, and more from it, which has been a phenomenal catapult for this academic year!