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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)