February Update 2013

We hope you had a very happy Purim! Our jU Interns certainly did!

jU Chicago is excited to announce the launch of our second internship track, the Community Building Internship. Through this initiative, nine interns are working on seven different projects, designing and building new Jewish communities on campus, each of which attracts between ten and twenty students to intimate meetings, gatherings, and events that take place regularly, whether weekly or every two or three weeks.

The Community Building Internship is premised on the idea that small communities are, as social scientist Jonathan Woocher has written, “a consistent source of meaning, a focal point for relationships, and a powerful contributor to a sense of self-worth.” Jewish community happens in small “pods.” By empowering a cohort of students to create small communities organized around a theme, activity, or shared interest, we are able to create the kind of specialized Jewish opportunities with the power to engage more Jewish students on a deeper, more meaningful level.

The training curriculum for the internship is interdisciplinary, drawing on community organizing techniques, social science, case studies, personal experiences of community, and Jewish texts and ideas. In particular, the curriculum has drawn from network theory, as presented in the bookConnected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. Christakis and Fowler argue that there are fundamental rules that govern the formation and operation of social networks, and that social networks must be tended to by individuals and organizations in order to function optimally. There is even a social structure which, they argue, yields the best results in terms of human achievement: a series of loosely connected small communities, the members of which are tightly connected. By adopting this “pod” model in the Community Building Internship, we hope to create a dynamic campus Jewish community from which interesting Jewish innovations can and will arise.

The interns create small communities that draw on their own social networks; because our interns are relatively spaced out in terms of overall network placement (some active in Greek Life, some living on campus, some living in apartments, many different majors and extracurriculars), the small communities draw from distinct and diverse populations.
The interns themselves serve as the crucial link between these discrete pods. They meet weekly as a large group and work intensively in teams of two in order to create a structure of accountability and mutual support. Some interns are working together on the same project, but most are building different communities and functioning as one another’s “first follower,” providing logistical support, finding potential invitees within their network, being a cheery presence in the other intern’s community meetings or get-togethers. This partnership model endeavors to provide structure while still being flexible enough to accommodate individual interns’ passions and capabilities. It also provides a good opportunity for exploring the Jewish tradition of partnered learning (“chevruta”). With an intern cohort of nine students and a staff member, we have essentially given these students the chance to be part of both a minyan and a chevruta.

Communities are forming around interests in Jewish culture, Shabbat, Jewish books, creative writing, ethical eating, and yoga practice infused with Jewish ideas. Next month, we will describe some of the communities in greater detail.

In the meantime, we are happy to report that we have also launched our graduate program. Over three dozen graduate and professional students attended a Shabbat dinner a few weeks ago, and we are about to launch a “Jews N Brews” series at which faculty members will discuss Jewish issues and ideas with students. Graduate and professional students are also contributing to a series of “idea bounces” to generate the best ideas for graduate programming that will be both engaging and substantive.

Our other projects continue to be both successful and innovative. The jU House is becoming a very active center for group meetings and activities, and our Remix interns put together some creative Purim-related programming, including the still-ongoing Purim Mask Project in collaboration with an arts-focused student organization called ArtShould. The project draws its inspiration from a popular mail art project, PostSecret, which gives people the cathartic opportunity to anonymously reveal their secrets on a homemade postcard. The Purim variation adds another element, asking students to also reveal the masks that they use to conceal those secrets.

jU Interns distributed “Secret Kits” that included a blank mask, postcard, and instructions. Participants were prompted to think about a secret they had not yet shared with anyone and to write it on the postcard.

Then they were asked, “What identity do you hide behind?” and to write that on the mask. Collection boxes are scattered around campus for students to return their finished masks and postcards, which will be displayed on campus as part of ArtShould’s display. In this way, the Remix interns hope that some of the deeper themes of Purim can reverberate throughout the student body.

On behalf of the jU staff and steering committee, all of our student interns and leaders, and all the students whose lives are being enriched by the communities and experiences described in this update, thank you for helping us continue this work. 

As always, if you would like to have a conversation with me about jU, please email me atdan@juchicago.org or call me at 773.717.5353.


Daniel Libenson