I’ll be honest—when I was in college, I rarely stepped foot inside the Hillel building. I was always regularly involved with Jewish life by teaching Hebrew at the local synagogue, enjoying time with Jewish friends, and spending every summer at my Jewish summer camp, but I never found the time and motivation to experience Hillel in college, even though I had many friends who loved their time there. That’s why I was so excited to hear that I would be working with Hillel at Miami University, which would also give me a chance to see the organization from the leadership side and really explore how a successful Hillel works.
One of my biggest takeaways from my work is this: there is no one model of success. For my first semester, my supervisor and I decided that I would teach a “hot topics” session one evening a week. As I was transitioning into life in Cincinnati, I needed a lot more structure than I anticipated, so I truly required this very delineated schedule. But, I quickly learned that this type of schedule just wasn’t working for the students at Hillel. As college students with a full schedule of academic courses, the thought of adding another class for the day seemed impossible. Even though I planned sessions with varied content and style, it was difficult to persuade students that it was a worthwhile way to spend their Wednesday afternoons.
Although I had at least one student per week, I wasn’t able to meet my own standard of success. I wanted to be making an impact on the wider Hillel community, and that simply wasn’t happening. As much as I tried to be available for one-on-one coffee meetings and chats in the building, it was often complicated to get in touch with students and make these plans, since I was on campus only once a week. I ended the first semester with a sense of defeat, unsure how to carry forward.
Then, for our education class, we were asked to reflect on the concept of success. To aid in this reflection, we were instructed to speak with our supervisors and ask them about their own vision on the subject. What could have been a fifteen-minute chat turned into an hour-long conversation. I was enthralled. The reason I had been feeling unsuccessful was fairly simple. I was measuring myself based on a model of success that works for a religious school classroom but not for a Hillel. At the most basic level, a successful Hillel revolves around relationship building. There is no set curriculum, no criteria for what students must leave school understanding. Instead, a Hillel must offer a variety of programs, all of which should help students discover their own Jewish identities. A huge buzzword is engagement, and that’s because only through engagement and relationship building will students find their way to appropriate programming. Yes, education is still important, but it functions in a more individualistic way, applying to each student differently and always dependent on the level of successful engagement that has been achieved first.
Once I heard this, it was as if a light went on in my brain. I had been critiquing myself in the wrong way. I was struggling to connect with students because I wasn’t around the building enough to build relationships. My session topics weren’t the problem. The problem was that I couldn’t be on campus often enough to encourage students to attend. Only through understanding a variety of success parameters can teachers and students come close to succeeding. What works for one person may not work for another, and what works in one organization isn’t guaranteed to work somewhere else. For example, some institutions value content above all else, and others prefer to focus on the path to that content. Either way has the potential to succeed, but only if everyone is on the same page, with the same end goal in mind.
Unfortunately, my schedule still doesn’t allow me to be on campus more than once a week, but I’m finding a way to connect with more students despite this challenge. This semester, I won’t be teaching a session each week. Instead, I’m varying my schedule so I can attend a variety of meetings and programs that already exist. I can find a way to teach and be involved in each of these programs, and I can be at Hillel on different days of the week. I’m even incorporating some Skype sessions with students on specific topics. This way, I can meet more students and build the relationships that truly matter at a Hillel. Through Hillel, I have learned about the way I function as a teacher and a mentor, but perhaps most importantly, working at Hillel has afforded me the opportunity to re-envision personal and organizational success. Even with the best of intentions, we can truly miss the mark unless we remember what has enabled our people to survive and succeed: relationships and engagement are the keystone for success in the Jewish world.
Libby Fisher is a second-year rabbinical student in Cincinnati, currently serving as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow for the Hillel at Miami of Ohio.