jU 2013 June Update

June 14, 2013

jU's first academic year has been extremely successful—and it’s not over, because we will be doing summer programming for the many students who stay in Chicago for internships and study. This is an opportunity to engage a new student audience without the pressures of the academic year. Our summer programming will include Shabbat dinners, field trips to Jewish cultural events and interesting places, and even an innovation-oriented Talmud class!

Our work is gaining attention through articles by our staff and students in major on-line Jewish publications. Staff member Rachel Cort recently published an article entitled “Peoplehood in Pods” about our community building work on eJewishPhilanthropy.com, which is a very widely-read Jewish ideas blog. And our student bloggers’ pieces have been picked up by sites such as Moment Magazine and Jewcy.

New Interns. We have hired six more fantastic student interns to join our team in the fall. These interns will be part of the Remix Internship, which is responsible for creating Jewish holiday programming that is attractive, substantive, and inspiring. The new team will be responsible for Passover and Shavuot next year. They will spend the Fall Quarter and the beginning of Winter Quarter studying about these holidays and also taking a crash course in creativity, innovation, design, and marketing. About midway through Winter Quarter, they will turn their attention to conceptualizing creative ways of experiencing these holidays on campus and will begin to design and execute the events, which will take place throughout Spring Quarter. Our six new interns come from a broad range of Jewish backgrounds and bring a wide variety of skills to bear on the challenge of making Judaism resonant and compelling for their peers.

jUbilee. A few weeks ago, nearly 150 people attended our “jUbilee” celebration in honor of the holiday of Shavuot. Frankly, we were astonished that so many people came to a four-hour-long Jewish study event on a Friday night for a holiday that many people have never heard of. The jUbilee event was the culmination of a long process of study and design by a team of four interns who explored the history and philosophy of Shavuot and figured out how to create an event that would engage their peers in a deep way. Shavuot is both a harvest holiday and a commemoration of the giving of the Torah, so the event that our students created combined those two themes in homage to the traditional practice of holding an all-night study session. The students invited professors and other speakers to give short talks under the theme of “Jewish in America” anchored by Professor Jonathan Lear’s standing-room-only discussion of the relationship between Judaism and psychoanalysis. In an adjacent room, interactive student-led workshops included Jewish Yoga, an exploration of the steamy love poems of King Solomon, and a discussion of Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing. Vegetarian Ethiopian food, as well a cheese tasting and other foods, connected the heady event to its agrarian origins. The event was incredibly well received by students, as one commented, “This was the best way to spend a Friday night that I can imagine!” Feedback doesn’t get much better than that!

Shabbat. All year, another team of students has been working on ways to connect their peers to the experience of Shabbat. Initially, our vision was to create large-scale Shabbat events, but students expressed to us that such events could feel institutional and sterile, as they are put on by organizations, rather than by students. The interns were passionate about creating more intimate student-designed experiences. This past quarter, our interns hosted two Shabbat dinners at the jU House, each attended by about thirty students. Before the events, students cooked together and even decorated their own “cell phone sleeping bags” to explore what it would be like to have a day of rest from technology. The team also prototyped a “Campus Shabbat Program” that enables students across campus to host Shabbat in their homes by providing a small food subsidy and guidance for students who want to host Shabbat meals in their apartments or dorms. Our interns provide mentorship on logistics, themes, and Jewish rituals, and they provide “Shabbat Kits” that contain a kiddush cup, challah cover, candles and matches, and even a special Shabbat host T-shirt. The initial Shabbat dinners in student apartments have been very successful, and the team is looking forward to making this a major initiative in the fall.

Talmud Study. If you had asked me a year ago whether jU might sponsor a Talmud study class, I would not have thought it was likely. But we are blessed to be working with Rabbi Benay Lappe, a master Talmud teacher, whose approach to Talmud is to expose the creativity of the ancient rabbis in order to free us to be creative and innovative in our time—to expose that change is the Jewish tradition. Benay did some teaching with our interns, and a grassroots demand arose for more study, so we decided to give it a try. Every Monday night during Spring Quarter, the inter-religious center’s “Uncommon Room” in the basement of Rockefeller Chapel was filled with the din of undergraduates and graduate students studying Talmud together for three hours at a time! Next year, we intend to expand the Talmud class and explore potential educational programs.

Digital Engagement. In an era where students are “digital natives,” having grown up with technology and social media as part of their everyday lives, it is important to reach students online as well as in person. To that end, we have been developing our social media presence in multiple platforms:FacebookTwitter and Tumblr, in particular. The digital space is a place to share information and resources, maintain relationships with students that we don't see on a daily basis, keep students engaged and thinking about Jewish things between events and community meetings, and communicate our organizational values of innovation, openness, and humor. We're very happy with our progress so far (we recently surpassed 200 "likes" on Facebook!) and we plan to beef up our social media presence even more next year by hiring a dedicated social media intern.

Graduate and Professional Student Programming. jU is committed to building a strong program for graduate and professional school students. This is uncharted territory in the Jewish world, as there are very few successful programs aimed at this cohort. But we believe it is possible to build something great over time. To that end, over the year we met with many graduate and professional school students from diverse academic disciplines, including law, business, public policy, humanities, the sciences, economics, philosophy, and divinity. The one thing that united all these students was the feeling that there is almost no outlet for meeting students from fields of study different from one’s own. With this in mind, we started hosting programs in order to facilitate this interaction. We started a monthly pub night called “Jews N Brews” featuring presenters on various aspects of Jewish life (Mexican Jewry, LGBTQ Judaism, the Jewish environmental movement, innovation in the Jewish tradition). We partnered with the Jewish Law Students Association to host quarterly Shabbat dinners, attracting about 40 graduate students each time. We also held an “idea bounce” session, where graduate students could get together and discuss what they wanted to see on campus. Several graduate students joined our Talmud study program. While this program is in its infancy, we believe it has great potential and look forward to building upon it next year.

As always, this report only scratches the surface of what jU is doing on campus. We encourage you to explore our website and social media sites to experience even more. We are especially excited that our work is gaining national attention and that our staff and students are publishing articles about our work in national journals and on-line magazines.

Have a great summer!


Daniel Libenson