Nothing captures the dynamic and special nature of being a Hillel professional better than when I step out onto campus to take a stroll.
I never have a particular direction and I don’t carry any props, but these walks are the heart of my work. They’re my “Office Hours.”
I meander down the center of campus. I notice the various banners for Alternative Spring Breaks and theatre productions. There’s a girl, totally carefree, dancing to some music, advertising a coming show. I’m embedded in a living, multi-dimensional university culture. For me, being a Hillel professional is about collaborating in the creative academic setting of the university. On my stroll, I collect and arrange the collage of events and experiences my students care about. I may only make it to a few of these events, but they’ll all serve as starting points for the conversations I have around campus.
I see Blake coming up the path from the library. I call out to him and we shake hands, happy to stop and catch up. Blake is a former student intern – we shared a year together (along with another 14 interns) wrestling with Jewish tradition and wisdom in weekly meetings. Blake shares that he’s in the Shakespeare play this coming weekend, and we talk about how important these performances have been to him as he balances his busy life as a student and entrepreneur. I remind him that when he’s done with the play and has a little more free time, I’ll be happy to see him back at our weekly Torah study community, which I know he was unhappy to leave when rehearsals began.
As an educator, the foundation of my work is developing relationships that transcend boundaries of programs. Students know that they can stop me on a walk, and will find an open ear, and a caring heart for what’s happening in their lives.
Before we part, Tai, a first year student from New York passes us. I heartily greet him, and Tai lingers for a moment to say, “What’s up?” I met Tai while canvasing the campus talking up Birthright registration. I introduce Tai and Blake – and, of course, it only takes a few exchanges to reveal the intersections of their social networks. Tai is interested in some of Blake’s involvement with performing arts, and it’s clear Blake, the junior, might be a great mentor for this younger student – only on campus a few months. So often, this is the most important “Jewish” work I do, connecting students with one another; helping establish new networks that might hopefully benefit students’ professional, personal, and Jewish experiences.
Continuing my meanderings, I am called to by Ellie, who has just emerged from one of the beautiful building on campus. Ellie and I worked together last year to create a campus-wide initiative focused on exploring gender and sexuality – it was a learning experience, whose product was, well, just “OK.” Today Ellie wants to brainstorm her future – she’s in her final school year. “I know this is crazy,” she says, “but I’m thinking about taking a year off.” I ask her some questions, and offer to connect her to a student I know who decided similarly.
There’s so much anxiety about the future on a college campus. Many of my walks are occupied with the daily worries and decisions surrounding students’ futures. Hillel professionals are especially positioned to be a resource in these cases. As my former colleague Emily Perl often said to me, Hillel professionals occupy a “third space” – we’re not parents and we’re not professors. We are professionals with whom students can speak frankly about their aspirations and worries without fear of judgment or pressure. For Ellie, today, this is exactly what she was looking for.
Just as I’m thinking about heading back to our Hillel building, I spot Molly sitting reading on a bench. Molly is a current student intern – she’s an athlete, and involved in the creative writing scene. We spend some time sitting together, reflecting on her internship experience, the Shabbat dinner she’s hoping to host soon, and the dynamics of our intern community. As an educator, I see my students as collaborators. I don’t necessarily have an educational agenda; I facilitate conversations around topics that students identify as either compelling or sticky. Many a quick chat on campus has determined the material covered that night in community. I thank Molly for reflecting with me, we laugh about this and that, and then I’m off.
Rabbi Josh Bolton is the Senior Jewish Educator for the Jewish Renaissance Project at Penn Hillel. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, Rabbi Josh studied poetry in graduate school, loves to stroll in the woods, and adores his wife, Natalie, and little boy, Oren.