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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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Engagement strategy brings Jewish life to students

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From left are Jaclyn Parker, Anna Gol, Miriam Borden and Alyssa Moses, all former or current Hillel engagement interns.

Hillel’s newest intern program has introduced 645 Toronto students to 20 Jewish programs and organizations in the past five years, said Stephanie Krasman, assistant executive director for Hillel of Greater Toronto.

The goal of the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, she said, is to create meaningful Jewish relationships with students on campus. Typically, an intern would approach Jewish students and invite them out for meaningful Jewish conversation usually over coffee.

“There’s an authentic Jewish element to this work,” Krasman said. “Ultimately, it is about making an enduring commitment about Jewish life.”

Through the program, which has been established in three cities across North America, Hillel hires interns who work solely to engage Jewish students on campus and introduce them to Jewish programs and organizations, Krasman explained.

Miriam Borden, a University of Toronto student, is one of eight “engagement” interns with Hillel of Greater Toronto. She described herself as a perfect example of the program’s results.

“I came from 12 years of Jewish day school and a year at yeshiva, and I do Jewish studies, so I figured I don’t really need Hillel,” she said, adding that there were all the “usual turnoffs,” such as the perception of Hillel being too cliquey or uncool.

She said she vowed never to set foot in Hillel and succeeded until one of the interns last year sought her out. She agreed to go for coffee with the intern and discussed her interests, which included slam poetry. After a few meetings, the intern suggested she plan her own slam-poetry storytelling event.

“So here I was, involved in planning a Hillel event,” Borden said, laughing. “I’m proof that it works.”

To find these Jewish students, the interns often use Facebook first to look for people they know and then look at their friends’ networks, said Borden, who describes social media as the best outreach tool.

To learn networking techniques, interns attend a weeklong Hillel training course in St. Louis, Mo. During the school year, they meet 20 times for two-hour leadership training and development seminars. “Last year this meant the interns were exposed to 66 hours of leadership development and 30 hours of Jewish learning,” Krasman said.

In total, she said she contacted about 30 people last semester, and estimated that 20 responded, and she “engaged” with 15. Most of these people were found on Facebook, although being a Jewish studies major means Borden can also find many people in class.

“It’s amazing when you really see how far you can really expand your network,” she said. “It’s like a rubber band where it could be smaller or bigger as you like it.”

The peer-to-peer approach is what makes the program such a success, Krasman said. “When students think back to their Jewish experience on campus, they’ll think of the intern they had this amazing relationship with.”

Interns are instructed to be upfront about their mission. From the very first message, they let people know they are part of Hillel and are interested in speaking to them about ways to get involved in Jewish life.

Borden described the approach as a bit of a delicate dance, given that she’s approaching people who may not always identify as Jewish all the time, and she’s asking to speak to them about their religion.

The program is helping her prepare for her future career, which she hopes will be in Jewish education. “[The internship] brings me in touch with what’s going on in the emergent Jewish community, the young people who are the next generation of people sending their kids to Jewish schools and camps,” she said.

While Borden said the program has been very beneficial to her, she won’t participate again next year. Hillel limits interns to one school year in order to refresh their network, giving them a chance to reach a new group of Jewish students each year.

However, she said she will leave the program with a large network of professional connections.

“I know important names now – important people in Jewish community work. And they might know my name, which is pretty cool,” she said.

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