Monday, August 16, 2010

Reflections on the Hillel Institute

We are back from the Hillel Institute in St. Louis and so energized and excited  to start the Fall semester.  I have been reflecting on the week lately and have come to several conclusions. Let me just assure you that we, and more generally Hillel,  are moving in the right direction.

A big theme this year was breadth and depth.  This focus translates to how programs can touch a wide audience and also be meaningful.  These concepts, on the surface, are counter-intuitive.  It would seem that a program that has a wide audience must be watered-down and mainstreamed (2 aquatic metaphors) which could negate any attempt at reaching depth.  Depth is supposed measure the meaningfulness of an experience.  The correlation here is that the more meaningful something is the deeper it will resonate within someone. This is the old debate of quality versus quantity.  Is our mission to merely touch as many lives as we can or really focus and really work to develop several students (out of the +8000 Jewish students in Gainesville) into heliga menschkite?  The mission is to do both, to do all.  To enrich the lives of as many students as we can while providing meaningful Jewish experiences to all that will participate.

I contemplated this for some time.   I really struggled with the idea of depth.  Maybe not the idea but the definition, the imagery of what depth is.  To me, the word most closely resembling a meaningful Jewish experience, with follow-up is "growth".  Growth seems to be what we are after.  But I could be wrong.  I thought more about these conflicting terms and tried to reconcile them.  So, what grows deep?


When roots grow, they grow slowly.  Over time, little by little.  They grow deep, they grow wide.  They are the support and sustainability that is the success of a tree.  I think that is where breadth and depth play into what programing should look like.  Programs should run the gambit of accessibility however they should be rife with opportunities for depth.  Once our students develop wide and meaningful experiences, their Jewish identity will flourish.  Our experiences and memories become our roots, the way we live and act in the world is our tree.

And what happens when trees fall?  What happens when programs look great on paper but in real life don't come together at all? I can honestly say I no longer have fear of F.L.O.P.S.S. (Feeling Like Our Programs Suck Syndrome).  Another great thing about the conference was the amount of networking we were encouraged to do.  It would seem that most people go to conferences for the "hallway conversations".  In a brilliant move by the conference staff, they structured groups to have "hallway conversation" time in classrooms around the campus.  We were able to learn so much from our colleagues, friends, and like-minded schools.  We have the resources now to connect with the people who serve as friends and informal mentors to us.  When we want to try out a program like "Grad Student Alternative Spring Break" I can contact the director from that school to learn from them.  With ease we can find out what were the struggles to recruit students, how did that trip differ from an undergraduate trip, will they do it again, and how will it be different?  This makes our programming better, our Hillel better, and other Hillels better too.

My absolute hands down favorite part of the conference that I will carry with me throughout is the feeling of service and gratitude amongst all the participants.  I know it sounds cheesy but whatever.  Truthfully, it is an amazing feeling to work for an organization that is full of talented and passionate people focused on providing whatever we can, at the highest level of quality that we can, for the betterment of the future.  For our future, for your future, for everyone's future. 

Well our students are starting to trickle back into town.  We wish them all the success in the upcoming semester!  Look out for us next week, we will be all over campus tabling and hosting events.  Hope to see you there,


This post was written by our new program director Jeff Kaplan.  He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @Jeffdude

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