I would so much like young people to have a sense of the gift that they are. Not many of them feel like that. – John Denver
In my interactions with students at Hillel at Miami University campus, I see that many students are longing for the connection that they would get at home with their families. Although many college students might miss home, they do not come to college to recreate their home life or to find surrogate parents while they are away; they come to grow and develop their personal identity. My experience has shown me that in order to work with these students, I need to play an integral role in facilitating their own processes. I do not tell them what to do. I might make suggestions and ask questions, but ultimately, all decisions are theirs.
The need to empower students has been most apparent in my work with them to create a new prayerbook for weekly Shabbat services. I realized during one of my first visits to campus for Shabbat that there was a common theme of frustration with the current prayerbook. I decided to take charge of the project of improving the Shabbat experience at Hillel by planning meetings and providing resources for our “Switching Up Our Siddur, Polishing Our Prayerbook” sessions. In the first few meetings, I asked the students what they wanted to change about the current prayerbook, what they wanted to stay the same, and also asked them if they had other comments they wanted to share. At each subsequent meeting, I took the opportunity to teach about the section we were working on and then gave the students ten to fifteen different prayerbooks from various denominations so they could find material to include in their own version. From this point, we began to work on formatting, transliterations, translations, English insertions, and more. It has been a lengthy process thus far, but has been very well received. The students have enjoyed looking at the differences between prayerbooks and creating their own. They have enjoyed having the opportunity to have their voices heard and acted upon.
I came into the process with my own ideas of how to improve the prayerbook, but I knew it the students’ ideas that mattered. When I took a step back and let them voice their opinions and comments, they exceeded my expectations. I had no idea if they would be invested in the project or if they would just brush it off. We have been not only revamping the prayerbook and making it more accessible to the students regardless of their backgrounds, but also receiving suggestions to improve the Shabbat experience in other ways. A large constituency of students requested Shabbat morning services, something I did not think college students would want. After discussing this idea at length, the students asked me to lead these morning services with a large amount of student participation. On November 23, 2013, we had about twelve students come to services at 11 am. Three of those students read Torah and the rest of them held at least one role during the service. The students requested that I lead a text study rather than give a sermon. It was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. It was a great conversation and every single person participated. Never in my wildest dreams did I think beginning meetings about a prayerbook would inspire students to ask for a Shabbat morning service. Since that service, we have decided to meet once a month and use a different movements’ prayerbook each time so we can explore them together.
I have taken John Denver’s quote to heart, and I strive to show each student I work with how incredible they are. I have shared my bursting pride at every opportunity I get so they realize how special they are and how much they mean to the Hillel community. Encouraging students to speak up and figure out what they want from their Shabbat experience has allowed ideas to flow and programs to be implemented. Because the students see their ideas taking shape and being embraced with such excitement, they have become increasingly empowered not only as Jews, but also as individuals.
Marina Tecktiel is a fourth-year rabbinical student who is fulfilling her Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati service-learning fellowship at Miami University Hillel.