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).
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!
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.
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.
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!*******
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.
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!