I recently sat down with Lisa Armony as she was getting ready for her second year as Executive Director of Hillel Foundation of Orange County. She shared with me insight into her vision for Hillel and the new and innovative ways Hillel is serving Jewish students on Orange County college campuses.
What have you done this past year to grow Hillel as an organization? Hillel’s mission is to foster in every Jewish student an eternal commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. To fulfill this mission we have focused our initial stage of our growth on three key areas: engagement, learning and measurement.
OC Hillel has adopted Hillel International’s peer-to-peer engagement model that has helped Hillels around the country greatly increase the number of students they reach each year. A little over a year ago, we hired an engagement coordinator to oversee this function. She oversees a group of student interns whose job is to find unaffiliated and under affiliated Jewish students on their campuses, develop relationships with them, and work with then to develop programs relevant to their interests, to which we add a Jewish lens. In that way, students who are not connected to their campus Jewish communities or to Judaism can see the connection between their passions and interests and Jewish values and understand the relevance of Judaism in their lives.
In the fall, OC Hillel hired our first campus rabbi and senior Jewish educator. The addition of this role has enhanced our ability to develop rich Jewish educational programs as well as to enhance our Jewish life cycle offerings including Shabbat and holidays. We also continue to provide robust educational programs about Israel through a variety of means. Our Israel Fellow provides regular programs on everything from politics to history to culture. In addition, we now have two significant immersive experiences in Israel. Each summer, we take a diverse group of campus leaders to Israel and the West Bank to gain in depth knowledge about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in partnership with the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services). And this fall, we began a partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Our students now study Hartman’s iEngage curriculum on their home campuses and for one week in Jerusalem at the Institute. The program gives students the knowledge and skills to foster pluralistic, inclusive conversations about Israel within their campus Jewish communities for the purpose of eliminating the divisiveness around Israel that we see all too often within Jewish communities on campus and off.
Measurement is a key to understanding how effective we are working on campus and to determine our impact on the lives of Jewish students. This year, we began participating in Hillel International’s “Measuring Excellence” (ME) program, which gives us a rubric for determining the breadth and depth of our engagement with students. Research shows that certain types of engagement greatly enhance the likelihood that students will remain connected to Jewish life, learning and Israel throughout their lives. Through ME, we can track our engagement with each student and determine how to serve them in ways that will foster long-term commitment to Judaism and Jewish community.
How has Hillel International stepped in to help? Hillel International, which is the umbrella for the more than 550 Hillel chapters on campuses worldwide, is an invaluable partner to us. We are using many of Hillel’s methodologies and tools to engage students, including our engagement program and Measuring Excellence. In addition, Hillel is extremely generous in terms of providing ongoing support in numerous areas, including strategic planning, professional development of staff, training for students, program planning and support and more.
You recently sent almost a dozen students to a Hillel International conference and one of your students, Lauren Kerner, was a speaker at the JFNA General Assembly in Washington DC. How did that go? One of our goals is to encourage our students to explore and engage with Jewish communities and organizations outside their campuses. We believe this is an important means of helping students diversify their Jewish experiences and discover the next stages of their Jewish journeys. In the last six months, we have sent over a dozen students to Hillel International seminars where they met with their peers from other campuses, received training in engagement methodology, and shared ideas and best practices in order to enhance the Hillel experience on their campuses. Our students also attend a variety of other conferences and programs suited to their interests. One of the highlights this year was when UCI Hillel student Lauren Kerner addressed the over 4,000 delegates at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington this past November. Lauren shared her experience as a campus leader and as an intern this past summer at the Shimon Peres Center for Peace, an opportunity she had discovered through her participation in our interfaith student mission to Israel the summer before. We were so proud of Lauren, and delighted to see this example of how Hillel’s work with students empowers them as they grow into strong Jewish leaders making valuable contributions to their community.
What are some of the new approaches you are incorporating to meet the needs of today’s college students? I think it is important to note that today’s college students have grown up in a world in which everything is customized, from the coffee they order to the configuration of their cell phones. Likewise, there is growing understanding that the most effective way to engage young people today is to “customize” their Jewish experience. That is, meeting them where they are and helping them understand the relevance of Jewish values in the areas they are passionate about. Young Jews today are what Rabbi Donniel Hartman calls “Jews of meaning.” They have choices in terms of their identity, and, unlike previous generations, they do not automatically identify with Judaism just because they were born into it. Rather, if Judaism is to be important to them, they need to choose it. I think that is the biggest shift in thinking we have introduced to our Hillel, and it has changed the way we work on campus. We are committed to getting to know each Jewish student on our campuses and learning what issues interest them. We then seek to support them and foster their Jewish growth by introducing Jewish lenses to the subject matters they care deeply about.
What’s next for Hillel? What are you working on now? We have a terrific staff team that is hard at work with our students on a variety of new initiatives geared to enhancing our ability to serve diverse Jewish student populations and to foster dynamic, engaging, inclusive and pluralistic Jewish campus communities. Some of these initiatives will be rolled out in the coming semester, including our first alternative spring break in which our students will participate in service projects while gaining a deep understanding of the way our texts, traditions and values inform our social action and community service imperatives. In addition, because Hillel plays a key role in developing our Jewish future, we look forward to continuing to engage with the broader OC Jewish community so that it can benefit from the tremendous value students bring to it.
For more information please contact Lisa Armony, (949) 435-3484 Ext. 376,
Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel, and currently works for the CEO and President of Jewish Federation & Family Services.