By Sophie Bloch, Director, Hillels of Memphis
Above: University of Memphis students Niki Schienberg, Gila Karasik, Eli Apel, and Jessica Breining gather for an end of semester Hanukkah lunch at the Morris S. Fogelman Hillel building near the University of Memphis campus.
I often joke that my job as the Director of Hillels of Memphis centers around feeding and caffeinating ravenous college students. On one hand, the work of Hillel does indeed fall back on the incredibly reliable Jewish tradition of coming together as a community around a delicious meal – there are few experiences in life as profoundly gratifying as providing a hot, home cooked meal to a busy student who otherwise survives on whatever the dining hall is serving. On the other hand, the delicate process of building trusted relationships so that Hillel isn’t just another place to eat is where the real magic of the work happens.
Since school started in August at University of Memphis and Rhodes College, Hillel served ninety-six bagels at weekly bagel brunches, thirty-eight Shabbat meals enjoyed with friends from across both campuses, and forty-five cups of coffee shared over relationship-building conversations. Those relationships, though, are the real metrics of success in this line of work.
Relationship-based engagement is engagement with students based on their interests and passions that leads to sustained interaction. When successful, relationship-based engagement enables students to understand the role Judaism plays in their identity, empowers students to integrate Jewish values into their life choices, and teaches students to take action to incorporate Jewish tradition into their lives. Relationship-based engagement also helps results in students engaging with their community of Jewish peers and their connection to Israel. On average, students who participate in Hillel at least one time over the course of their college career exhibit statistically higher outcomes above than Jewish students who have never participated in Hillel. The more frequently a student engages with Hillel, the higher the outcomes they exhibit.
Last semester, over seventy Jewish students across Memphis schools have invested in their relationship with Hillel, and thus Jewish life, by attending a Hillel program or event over the course of the Fall semester. Thirty of those students have committed to Jewish life on campus by taking on a leadership role in Hillel or participating in more than five programs or events over the course of the Fall semester.
In addition to building relationships with students, I have met with countless campus and community partners, further solidifying the role Jewish Life plays on campus as well as the role Hillel plays in the Memphis Jewish Community. I have gotten to know our amazing lay leaders and supporters, hearing your own Hillel stories as we together ponder how to honor the legacy of past Jewish life on Memphis campuses while evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of today’s Jewish college students in today’s Memphis Jewish community. Today’s college students across the country struggle with demanding classes, extreme social pressures amplified by social media, and expectations to take advantage of every opportunity they come across for personal development and resume building while on campus. Many of them struggle with mental health, loneliness, and despair about the world they will be inheriting as they become leaders of tomorrow.
I have the distinct privilege of bearing witness to the journeys of Jewish students at Rhodes College and University of Memphis as they forge their way in the world and recommit to the role Judaism plays in their life. We live in a time when any Jewish life on campus should be seen not as expected, but as miraculous. For students who are surrounded by fast fads, countless trends that come and go, and more causes to fight for than ever before, reconnecting to Jewish values, traditions, and community is a steadfast way for Jewish students at Rhodes and University of Memphis to both remember who they are and also discover who they can be. For some that means stepping into a leadership role to help organize programs and events, or participating in the upcoming Jewish Learning Fellowship class in the Spring. For others, it means bringing their friends by the Morris S. Fogelman Jewish Student Center at University of Memphis to show off the incredible study and lounge space they have come to grow proud of as their own. No matter where the college students of Memphis are on their Jewish Journey, Hillel is here to meet them where they’re at and walk alongside them, coffee cup in hand.