From the Jim Joseph Foundation

Learning with Hillel: A Series on Insights from Leaders in the Field

April 7th, 2021

As a Foundation that wants to always learn—one of our internal values is Hitlamdoot—we need to hear directly from leaders and practitioners in the field. Particularly at this moment, understanding what these individuals are experiencing, thinking, doing, and planning is integral to building our team’s knowledge base about the many subfields that makeup the broader world of Jewish education and engagement.

In this vein, representatives from different grantee-partners are speaking with the Foundation each month in Learning Sessions. While initially we planned for these sessions to be entirely internal, the insights and perspectives we are hearing from grantee-partners will be interesting and informative for others as well. We continue to approach our work with Kavanah, intention, to always elevate the efforts of others who help us pursue our mission. And we look forward to sharing brief recaps of each Learning Session. Read previous recaps on learning sessions with Daniel Septimus, CEO of Sefaria, Deborah Meyer, founder and CEO, and Rabbi Tamara Cohen, VP of Program Strategy, Moving Traditions, and Sarah Levin, CEO of JIMENA.

Learning Session Guest: Rabbi Benjamin Berger, Vice President of Jewish Education, Hillel International

Although most are familiar with Hillel’s mission and history, Ben explained that it is important to understand that Hillel’s comprehensive development platform is modeled after programs in private industry. These programs aim to enrich every one of Hillel’s 1,200 professionals through best-in-class professional development and education. Hillel U offers a blend of in-person and online education courses through its four centers of learning, one of which is the Center For Jewish and Israel Education (CJIE), which Ben oversees.

Despite the challenges of the COVID pandemic, Hillel engaged over 140,000 students with over 50,000 immersive activities. Local Hillels hosted more than 20,000 virtual programs.

Ben’s journey to his role today took many twists and turns, but truly started when he returned to UC Santa Cruz as an undergraduate after a year in Israel. At that time, the beginning of the second intifada deeply impacted him and his perspective of campus engagement. One clear realization for him was the passion he held for Jewish leadership, not necessarily solely Israel advocacy. “I began to understand my desire to inspire Jews and others to create a better world,” Ben adds.

When Hillel approached him about serving in his current role—following six years working at The Wexner Foundation—it felt like coming back home. He served previously as the Senior Jewish Educator at The Ohio State University Hillel. Ben’s core passion is helping college students find connection, meaning, and purpose, so returning to Hillel felt natural to him.

Hillel’s Evolution to Invest Deeply in Talent

Bringing Ben on board was part of Hillel’s major decision to invest in talent through the development of Hillel U, which now includes four pods. The first pod was CJIE, raising the level of talent for professionals and giving Ben room to craft the vision for the program.

Previously, Hillel looked externally to train educators. Through Hillel U, Hillel began to build out, design, and run its own programs to train people. With two Masterclass offerings, “Israel” and “Torah”—with more in development—Ben leads programs around core pedagogy of the essential skills of a Hillel educator:

  • Authentic use of self – how an educator uses themselves in the space while also allowing space for the learner.
  • Artful facilitation – how to make the space lively with a deep use of essential and beautiful questions; and the curation of educational space that creates physical and emotional space where people want to learn and feel embraced by more than just  experience and content.
  • Relational engagement – making people feel connected so they want to come back.

Hillel teaches their educators so they can excel in each of these areas today. “Our mentality is that if you’re not an educator now, you’re an aspiring educator,” Ben adds. Other ideas for future Masterclass offerings across Hillel U include:

  • Ritual – how to help campuses more fully develop ritual and spiritual life.
  • Justice – how to integrate engagement around social justice into more campus experiences.
  • Civil Discourse – a partnership with Pardes to bring and extend their “Machloket Matters” curriculum to be integrated with Hillel’s Masterclass skills and content knowledge orientation.
  • Wellness – to address the staggering mental health needs of students. Hillel educators would be trained on how to help students and where to refer those who need additional support. Ben notes, “In many ways, our communities have been distracted by the smoke of the Israel situation; the real fire on campus is related to mental health needs on campus.”

Advocacy and Engagement: Two Different Experiences

Over the last 20 years, Hillel has undergone a major shift in how it views its role in students’ lives. When the second intifada occurred, the Jewish organizational world reacted as though it was dealing with a marketing problem that could be addressed with well-designed posters and books of myths and facts. Over time Hillel has come to understand that is the wrong approach—and there was not a need to fight every battle on every campus, despite the unfortunate necessity of having to engage in some of those battles more than they wish. Hillel understands that a multi-faceted approach including supporting campuses to defend against antisemitic and anti-Zionist action on campus might be necessary, but that alone is not enough for meaningful engagement. Rather, Hillel’s deep commitment to be an educational organization means that it has to lead with a proactive, values, and questions-centered approach, which has been at the core of its Masterclass:Israel work. Ben explains this is a much different approach than prioritizing advocacy:

While advocacy has a clear outcome, education doesn’t always have a specific outcome. It’s about opening students’ minds and supporting them through a journey of learning. To get there, Hillel professionals have to be well trained, confident, and knowledgeable.

In many ways, Ben adds, the COVID-19 pandemic brought out the best of Hillel and the team. Now he sees Hillel doing more to support campuses and students. The immediate needs pushed the Hillel team to be creative, to listen, and to respond rapidly to build out ideas—and to raise the dollars to do so.

Programs such as Winterfest, for example, came out of these efforts, after students reported staggering rates of loneliness and isolation.  Winterfest was put together in a matter of weeks (Ben wrote about Hillel’s approach here), and included almost 1,500 students, 263 campus in 9 countries. The agility of the team during the time of disconnection was inspiring. That approach to programming and experimentation will inform Hillel activities long after the pandemic wanes.

Hillel’s partnership with Reboot to create the Higher Holidays is another example of creativity and agility in a time of uncertainty and campus need. With nearly 30 hours of streaming High Holiday content, Ben led an effort to bring a beautifully produced, engaging and meaningful experience that reached 16,000 participants. The quick support of the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund enabled both Higher Holidays and Winterfest to achieve such significant impact.