Brimming with ideas about making Judaism more relevant to the lives of her fellow millennials, Zoe Kress, 22, could not have dreamed up a more fitting first job than as Innovation Specialist at Vanderbilt Hillel.
As the advisor of the chapter’s Ritual Committee, Kress is helping students on the Nashville campus jazz up their Judaism. Themed Shabbats have included a recent yoga retreat, while the new “Tuesday Schmoozedays” series explores various topics, including mysticism, feminism, and the origins of Jewish humor.
“It’s about reimagining how engagement and programming works,” is how Kress, a Mount Laurel resident, described the function of an innovation specialist. “How do we make Shabbat and other Jewish holidays relevant to our students; how can an exercise class be re-imagined as Jewish?”
Some 750 miles away, Rachel Gordon, 22, is also working without a clear roadmap as the University of Delaware’s new social media specialist. Her job is to generate excitement for Hillel programming and to reinvent the chapter’s “brand,” reflecting the interests and needs of today’s student body.
“What I’ve been trying to do is meet students where they are,” explained Gordon, a 2016 Rowan University graduate from Mount Laurel. “I’ve found it’s a little hard because students tell you one thing but they might mean another. There’s a lot of trial and error.”
As far as Hillel International is concerned, Gordon and Kress have the raw talent, skills and enthusiasm to transform the organization to meet modern challenges–which is why it is investing heavily into their futures.
The South Jersey residents are among just 40 recent college graduates across the nation chosen for Hillel’s Springboard Fellowship program in its inaugural year. Tasked with doubling or tripling levels of student engagement on college campuses by employing new ideas and technologies, fellows are provided a competitive salary ($40,000 annually), mentorships and numerous skill-building opportunities to help them get the job done.
“One of Hillel’s key roles is to build and grow the next generation of Jewish talent, both for our own movement and the broader Jewish world,” said Eric D. Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, in a press release. “Through the Springboard Fellowship, we can build on the relationships we develop with young Jews on campuses across the country and around the world to provide college graduates with innovative education and skills training while serving our communities.”
Springboard’s goals are ambitious. Within five years, Hillel expects to train 500 fellows in order to create a “best-in-class talent management and Jewish education model” while providing these up-and-coming leaders with training and skills relevant both to their Hillel missions and future jobs. At the conclusion of the program, the organization expects some 60 percent of its fellows will move on to professional or formal lay leadership roles.
“In speaking to Hillel leaders and Jewish professionals across the country, I noticed that the skills their organizations urgently needed–innovation, design thinking, digital strategy and social media–were the exact skills young people want and need to thrive in today’s marketplace,” noted Hillel International’s Chief Talent Officer Mimi Kravetz, formerly an executive at Google. “Our new fellowship hopes to build a broader pool of young, well-qualified professionals with top-notch skills and a deep commitment to Jewish community,” she said in a statement released by Hillel.
Fellowship participants are being funded by Hillel International and by the local Hillel campuses that they serve.
For Kress, who was born in China, attended school through eighth grade at Kellman Brown Academy and high school at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, the fellowship was a natural follow-up to her studies. With her dual degree in psychology from Columbia University and Jewish gender and women studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, not to mention her internships at the American Jewish Committee and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, she was already thinking a lot about what Jewish engagement should look like.
“It’s such fun and exciting work,” said Kress, noting that she is thrilled to be working with a committed group of students at Vanderbilt. “I really like seeing the impact I think I have on the students. It’s really exciting to have the ability to really shape Jewish identities.”
Gordon said she understands the challenges Hillel is tackling in its quest to remain relevant on campuses.
“People have preconceived ideas about what Hillel is, as I did with BBYO,” said Gordon, who had to be convinced by her mother to attend her first BBYO chapter meeting and ended up loving it–becoming a regional BBYO officer and then an advisor for the organization during her college years. “They think Hillel is for people who don’t have a group of friends, but they’re completely wrong about that.”
She said she too has seen the impact of her work. A recent tie-dye event she planned targeting freshman women in fraternities brought in many newcomers. Many of them signed on to stay involved and some even are applying to go on an upcoming Birthright trip with the Hillel.
As far as the future, Kress said she sees grad school looming but has an open mind about her options.
Gordon said she could picture herself staying in the Jewish communal world, at least in the short run.
“I like the environment,” said Gordon, a Cherry Hill East graduate. “I don’t know if it’s a forever thing, but it could be a five-year plan.”