Giving it the old college try: Record $10.7 million grant lets Hillel reach out to students

There’s nothing unusual about a college party in Berkeley. Unless, of course, that party features all-you-can-eat challah, a klezmer band and an enticing taste of Jewish life.

That’s the Co-Op Shabbat, an event staged by enterprising Jewish students one Friday each semester at a U.C. Berkeley co-op.

The Co-Op Shabbat and other events like it are the result of a five-year experiment on 10 college campuses across the country.

Scenes from a Co-Op Shabbat in Berkeley run under the auspices of a new Hillel project

The bulky name of the experiment is the Senior Jewish Educator (SJE) and Campus Entrepreneur’s Initiative (CEI). Each component is part of a five-year, $10.7 million initiative funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and put into effect via Hillel houses at U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, Penn, Tufts and six other universities. Paid out over five years starting in 2008, it’s the largest single grant Hillel has ever received.

With funding in hand, each of the 10 Hillels hired one or more experienced Jewish educator (SJE) and recruited about a dozen paid student interns (CEI) to do outreach. The interns added to the mix by working their social networks.

Their goal: seek out unaffiliated Jewish students, engage them in conversation and, if possible, entice them into Jewish life, however modestly.

The numbers don’t lie. A 2012 study showed the program reached approximately 22,380 Jewish students on the 10 campuses, many who might otherwise have drifted away from Jewish life — or never connected in the first place. The contacts resulted in a 36 percent increase in student participation in Hillel from 2005 to 2012, the statistics showed.

Organizers at Berkeley Hillel and the foundation say the initiative, now in its fifth and final year, has been a great success.

“We’re confident this model works,” said Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, which has as its core mission the fostering and funding of Jewish learning opportunities for young people. “This is a way for friends to pull their friends into conversations around what Hillel calls ‘Big Questions,’ a huge panoply of matters critical to young people.”

Those questions most often were explored under the shade of a tree on the quad, and not in classrooms, lecture halls or Hillel houses. Though run by Hillel, the program was not designed to necessarily expand involvement with Hillel, though that certainly would be a welcome outcome.

Job one was encouraging Jewish students to deepen their knowledge and involvement with Jewish life.

Scenes from a Co-Op Shabbat in Berkeley run under the auspices of a new Hillel project

“This shifted the way we do our work,” said Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel. “It was an institutional shift, turning an educational focus on everything we do.”

Naftalin-Kelman said the aim was to recruit students “interested in creating Jewish community on campus, that want to create a sense of belonging.” The pathway led through a variety of social networks on campus, from co-ops to the Greek system, and from former Jewish day schoolers to non-affiliated collegians who grew up in interfaith families.

By the third year of the initiative, Rabbi David Kasher had taken on the role of SJE. Ordained in 2007, he worked with Hillel   

under the program while also teaching Jewish law at Berkeley Law School as part of a graduate fellowship there.

The Co-Op Shabbat and regular study sessions at the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi were some of the programs created under his stewardship.

In 2012, Kasher left the SJE job to become director of education for a local Jewish nonprofit, Kevah. Rabbi Gabe Greenberg stepped in over the summer, his first job after graduating from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school in New York.

One new program Greenberg and his 13 interns are readying has the working title “Ritual in a Bag.” For Shabbat, a student may sign up to receive a box containing challah, kosher grape juice, candles, and printed blessings and tips on how to get a good Shabbat table conversation going.

U.C. Berkeley students who signed on with the Hillel project include (from left) Madison Margolin, Aucher Serr and Audrey Bruner.

Greenberg believes in the CEI program because, as he noted, “We have to bring Judaism and Jewish growth to folks who are never going to step in the [Hillel] building. We have to think more strategically about how to do that, and try different experiments.”

One of this year’s interns, 23-year-old senior Audrey Bruner, has relished the work. “I’m a good fit for the job,” she said, “because I love Judaism, and feel really connected to it. It makes me feel really supported by Hillel.”

Interns have leeway in creating events they believe will entice students. Bruner is organizing what she calls a “radical Yiddish study group,” which will explore the Yiddish socialist communities and literature of her great-grandparents.

The grant was initially set to expire at the end of the year, though the Jim Joseph Foundation has given an extension through June 2014.

Beyond that, participating Hillels will have to raise their own funds to continue the SJE/CEI program. The prospect does not worry Hillel execs, because the program has proven so successful. Even Hillels that were not part of the original 10, such as San Francisco Hillel, have hired educators modeled on the SJE.

Alan Shalev, executive director at San Francisco Hillel, reports that his educator and interns have reached more than 350 unaffiliated Jewish students through the program, which he calls “amazing.”

Bruner used the same word to describe last month’s Co-Op Shabbat in Berkeley — a fun event with a klezmer band meant to include anyone, no matter the level of Jewish knowledge.

“We got a couple of hundred people dancing the hora,” she said. “It felt campy in a way I really love.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.