May Update 2013

May 10, 2013

Dear Friends,

Things continue to go extremely well in jU’s first year. As we move deep into Spring Quarter, there is far too much news to report, and we are committed to keeping these updates both brief and rich with detail. So, please enjoy this report on the progress of jU’s Community Building Internship, and we look forward to updating you in a few weeks on some wonderful developments from jU’s other program areas.

But first, we want to extend a warm invitation to participate in jU’s upcoming “jUbilee " Jewish learning festival in honor of the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is traditionally celebrated by staying up all night studying, which could describe almost any day at UChicago, so the holiday is especially poignant here. At jUbilee, UChicago faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students will offer short talks on the broad subject of Judaism in America, followed by opportunities for discussion, eating, and fun. The event will be held at Alumni House, corner of 56th and Woodlawn, on Friday, May 17 from 5:30-10:30 pm.  

As always, we strongly encourage you to look at our web site and social media venues to see all the events and ideas that are constantly floating around jU. We especially encourage you to check out ourTumblr blog. It is regularly updated and includes interesting and informative posts by student bloggers. It’s a great way to keep up with jU on a regular basis.

In our last update, we introduced you to the jU Community Building Internship, which we launched in January with a team of nine interns. We told you about the philosophy behind the internship and the way the interns are trained. This internship has already received national attention and was featured in a widely-read blog on Jewish innovation; you can see the article here.

Interns are tasked with building small Jewish communities, defined as regularly-meeting (at least once a month) groups of ten to fifteen students that explore Jewishness together in some way and, over time, coalesce into a bonded group. Interns work in teams of two in order to create a structure of accountability and peer support. These pairs don’t necessarily work on the same community project; in fact, most of them have chosen to work on different projects. In these instances, each intern functions as his or her partner’s “first follower,” providing logistical support, inviting friends and acquaintances to join the other intern’s community, and being a cheery presence in the community meetings or get-togethers. 

This partnership model endeavors to provide some structure while still being flexible enough to accommodate individual interns’ personal passions and capabilities. It also provides a good opportunity for exploring the concept of “kneh lecha chaver (find yourself a partner),” a famous piece of advice from the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot) and for experiencing the Jewish tradition of partnered learning. Nine interns are building seven distinct communities.

A preliminary analysis performed by the interns in March (the process is described in the blog post above) indicated that over 75 students (about 10% of the entire Jewish undergraduate population) were already strongly engaged in these communities, after only two months of operation! Our approach is built upon the idea that these communities are valuable in and of themselves and also serve as a platform for engagement in other Jewish activities, such as jU House programs and the holiday experiences (like jUbilee) created through our Remix Internship.

Now that the internship is in full swing, after about four months of operation, we want to give you a sense of what the interns have been building. The internship is already exceeding our expectations in terms of student participation and frequency of group meetings. One community even meets every single week, even though the requirement is only once a month, and a few groups have already exceeded the fifteen regular participants, which we initially saw as a ceiling; the challenge for these projects is how to sustain the intimacy of a small community—but this is a good kind of problem to have.

Here is a brief description of some of the communities being built by our interns:

Ben and Tori, inspired by Ben’s love of Woody Allen and Tori’s strength in curating discussions, have created a community that comes together to view and discuss Jewish-themed cinematic classics, such as films by Woody Allen and the Coen brothers. After watching “A Serious Man,” they discovered that one of their community members was friends with an actor who appeared in the movie, and they were able to give him a call to discuss the experience of working with the Coen Brothers in a movie that contained such strong Jewish themes. The group plans to take advantage of the numerous Jewish cultural events that happen on campus and around Chicago as the weather improves.

Rebeccah, a born hostess and an enthusiastic chef, has built her Shabbat Supper Club community around cooking elaborate recipes from The Jerusalem Cookbook for 12-16 fellow students. She has a core group of regulars who come early to help her cook, but also keeps a few spaces available for new guests each time, so that her guest list is varied. The Shabbat Supper Club has been such a successful experiment that it has inspired us to think about how we might seed other such Shabbat communities, and indeed a team of interns from our Remix Internship is using Rebeccah's success as a model for a Shabbat-across-campus initiative to support Friday night dinners in student apartments and to host larger Shabbat dinners at the jU House.

Brianne has always been interested in the ethical treatment of animals, particularly in what Jewish tradition has to say about food choices and humane treatment. After becoming vegan earlier this year, Brianne decided to bring together other students who have made choices or restrictions in their diet, whether through keeping kosher, veganism, or vegetarianism. Her community prepares and enjoys vegan/vegetarian fare while discussing these issues, often in very creative and active ways.

Grace and Kirsten decided to build a Jewish community around yoga. The community found its home at the jU House, where Kirsten lives, and the two interns have brought together elements of yoga practice and Jewish study, inspiring the weekly participation of extremely enthusiastic student participants. Kirsten and Grace are now enhancing the sense of community by offering a simple meal after yoga practice (along the lines of a frugal feast), and they designed a Yoga Seder on the last night of Passover that allowed participants to experience the Exodus story in a powerful new way, exploring whether using yoga poses, such as stressful body positions, might work better than symbolic foods for some people in re-enacting the journey from bondage to freedom, which is the goal of the traditional seder.

Becky, who is studying literature at UChicago, has created a reading group around humorous Jewish literature. The group has so far explored short stories from Philip Roth and Etgar Keret and has been enthusiastically received by its many members.

Rebecca’s community is built around the Jewish tradition of post-Shabbat dinner tisches—festive occasions filled with snacks, storytelling, singing and socializing. The community was formed with the idea that while some students might be uncomfortable with the ritual aspects of Shabbat, a tisch is more casual, accessible and comfortable.

Lastly, Leigh has taken on the challenge of building community in the digital age. She is creating a community of student writers who contribute short essays to the jUBlog. Under Leigh’s leadership, the jUBlog has published original pieces by University of Chicago students, ranging in subject matter from reflections on Birthright, to study abroad experiences that shed new light on Jewish identity, to coverage of Israeli author Sayed Kashua’s visit to campus. One of the student pieces was cross-posted in New Voices Magazine, a trend we hope to continue in the future.

It is only thanks to your support that jU can experiment with all these new ways of experiencing and leading Jewish life on campus. Thank you for making all this possible.

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

Wishing you a wonderful Shavuot holiday, and looking forward to seeing you soon.


Daniel Libenson