January Update 2013

January 25, 2013

Dear Friends:

We hope you’ve enjoyed a happy and healthy start to 2013. The University of Chicago’s second academic quarter began just a few weeks ago, and thanks to your support, jU has been able to double the size of our internship program. Coming off the success of our “UChiChanukah” festival, which over 200 students attended, we are looking forward to a great Winter Quarter.

In this update, we want to tell you a little more about our internships, which are at the center of jU’s program. The internships function as the means by which we create programs for large numbers of students, and they are also an intensive yearlong Jewish leadership development program for the interns themselves, who put in an amount of time equivalent to a full course in each of the three academic quarters of their internship.

As we have been reporting, jU will now be running two unique internship programs, one devoted to building small communities of approximately ten students and one devoted to creating larger events aimed at all Jewish students on campus. Each program has nine interns for a total of 18.

In order to jumpstart the work of the interns, especially getting our 11 new interns up to speed, we held an all-day retreat on Sunday, January 13 at UChicago’s brand new Logan Center for the Arts. The Logan’s Center’s Performance Penthouse offered students stunning views of the campus and of the city, inspiring a sense of enormous possibility.

After bagels and coffee, the interns got to know one another while practicing the skills they will use all year to better understand the needs and hopes of other students (which will enable them to design programming that will meet those needs and hopes). The interns formed two concentric circles with the inner circle facing out and the outer circle facing in, rotating every few minutes. They asked each other questions ranging from “What is your major and how did you chose it?” to “What cause are you willing to fight for?”

Students were then introduced to the concept of “chevruta,” a traditional style of Jewish learning in pairs. Rabbi Benay Lappe, jU’s Director of Jewish Education, gave students a parable to discuss. The parable, from Midrash Eliyahu Zuta, tells the story of two servants who were given wheat and flax by their master. One servant baked the flour into bread and wove the flax into cloth, while the other simply held on to what he was given in its original form. The parable praises the first servant and criticizes the second, concluding that “When God gave Torah to Israel, it was given to them just like wheat to bring flour out from it and like flax to bring cloth out from it.” After studying the text in pairs, students discussed the degree to which innovation and creativity are central to Jewish tradition, as well as what challenges and limitations there might be.

After lunch and more group activities designed to create team spirit, students were introduced to the ideas and tools of “design thinking”—that is, the approach that designers use to redesign objects, which can also be applied to the re-design of experiences and organizations. The major steps involved in the design thinking process are understanding, observation, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Students will use this approach to create their small communities and larger events. In order to internalize the approach, students undertook a simulated redesign of something they all struggle with, the University of Chicago night-time shuttle bus service. After dividing into three teams and going through the design thinking steps, each team presented its ideas for possible solutions to the rest of the interns for their questions and feedback. The interns were particularly excited that in those 30 minutes, they felt as though they had come up with a more useful and efficient shuttle system than the University had!

In the final session of the retreat, Rabbi Lappe presented her theory of “crashes” throughout Jewish history—points at which the then-dominant way of being Jewish was no longer sustainable without substantial change—and how Jewish innovators responded by creating new syntheses of the older Jewish material and approaches with material from the surrounding culture and emergent Jewish perspectives and ideas. The jU staff challenged the students to see themselves as “players” in this story and to see their work as part of the growing world of “Jewish innovation” that may help define a new path forward. In a closing discussion circle, many interns expressed excitement at being exposed to these ideas and at the prospect that they can be part of building something new and resonant.

On behalf of the jU staff, our team of 18 student interns, and all the students whose lives will be enriched by the work we do together in the year ahead, 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