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Hillels of Memphis Engages Temple Israel’s Teens with their Jewish Identity

by Steven Holman-
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“Considering how Jewish life in college begins long before a student steps foot on their college campus, I believe that it’s important for high school students to understand the Jewish landscape that awaits them after they graduate high school,” said Sophie Bloch, the Director of Hillels of Memphis. “College is the first time many Jewish teens explore Jewish identity on their own terms, so it’s important that they feel empowered to do so, and understand the role Hillel can play in helping them along their journey.”

Sophie was the featured guest teacher for a group of 8th-12th graders at Temple Israel’s High School program in mid-October. She led the students through discussions centered on college and Jewish identity, and engaged them with interactive exercises designed to bring the topics to life.

“I talked with the students about opportunities that college experience provides to explore identity and discover what Judaism means to them,” she said. “We talked about how religion and culture are experienced differently by every individual, and how finding what means the most to them may be the best place to start. We also talked about Israel and the complexities that having a relationship with the country can have on the campus experience. I wanted them to know a bit about what to expect as they embark on this thrilling but intimidating stage of life, and remind them that a Hillel can be an incredible campus resource, helping Jewish students explore their Judaism and connect with peers in a similar situation as themselves.”

“For most students, the transition from high school to college is as stressful as it is exciting. Having Sophie from Hillels of Memphis speak to the Temple Israel High Schoolers about how Hillel is dedicated to enriching their college experience through Judaism was priceless as they consider their college choices,” said Temple Israel’s Rabbi Jeff Dreifus. “Additionally, I loved her empowering message about using their new autonomy in college to be purposeful about their Judaism by reimagining how they connect and create community with people from cities from all across the country. Everyone appreciated Sophie’s insight.”

After Sophie’s lecture, the students made “life maps,” charting significant milestones, places, and people in their lives from birth to present day. They analyzed the items on their lists that were related to their Judaism, from their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, to Jewish summer camp experiences, to relationships with their grandparents. The exercise was designed to help students realize that many cherished memories are rooted in their Jewish experiences.

After other hands-on workshops, the conversation turned back to Israel.

“I wanted them to understand how Israel and Zionism factors in to Jewish identity, and how the teens could potentially navigate uncomfortable topics that they might encounter on campus around the subject of Israel, like the BDS movement and Antisemitism,” Sophie described.

The course ended with a segment exploring the online Hillel College Guide and Jewish Scholarship portal.

Through showing the teens the resources available to them, the students ultimately left the class with a better understanding of Judaism, what their religion personally means to them, how to respond to others’ negativity regarding Israel, and where to find helpful resources both at their college campus and online.

“This is one of the many examples of how Hillels of Memphis is a resource in the local Memphis Jewish community, even for teens just beginning to think about life beyond middle and high school, and what to look forward to when experiencing Jewish life in college,” said Sophie.

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