Q&A College Students Asking ‘Big Questions’

Q&A College Students Asking ‘Big Questions’

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Hillel International’s newest educational initiative doesn’t offer answers. The new project, “Ask Big Questions,” does just the opposite. Launched in 2011 and already operating on over 50 college campuses, “Ask Big Questions” brings college students together from diverse backgrounds to discuss everything from Jewish identity to how technology is altering our world. Over 4,000 Birthright participants have additionally used the program’s curriculum while touring Israel on Hillel-sponsored buses.

The Jewish Week spoke with Rabbi Josh Feigelson, founder and educational director of the initiative, to find out more about what big questions are being asked.

What are the most recurring ‘Big Questions?’ What types of discussions are taking place?

One question that has really taken off among students is, “For whom are we responsible?” I think the question strikes a universal chord among all students, not just Jewish students (30 percent of our participants are not Jewish). The Jewish axiom, “If I’m not for myself who will be for me?” poses a similar question. The question strikes at the idea of belonging, which is pivotal to college students.

Another question that frequently comes up is, “Where do you feel at home?” For students, who are in between the home where they grew up and the home they will create for themselves, this question is especially pertinent.

The third question that comes to mind is, “How does technology change us?” College students have a lot to say about this. I think young adults are much more aware about how technology is affecting their lives and relationships than people give them credit for.

What inspired the Ask Big Questions initiative?

After receiving my ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2005, I was the new campus rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel. The High Holidays were coming up and I needed to advertise so students would attend events and services. Instead of just posting the basic information, I decided to write a question on the banner I hung up in the university quad: “What will you do better this year?” Underneath that, I listed a couple ideas: call parents, donate blood, drink fair-trade coffee. The banner attracted far more student attention than I could have anticipated. Students kept stopping me to share what they wanted to do better in the upcoming year.

I decided to replicate the question idea for other significant events. Before Thanksgiving, I made a banner that asked students, “What are you thankful for?” During the fraternity rush, I asked students, “Who do you belong to?” The questions generated so much student interest that I made a website for the initiative. The movement continued to grow, and in 2011 the generous support of the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust enabled us to launch the initiative in Hillels across North America.

Why do you think this initiative has caught on so quickly among college students?

Students are hungry for these conversations. So much of higher education today challenges students to deconstruct their identities, but they do a lousy job of helping students put their identities back together. This initiative creates space for students to reflect on who they are and what they care about.

The recent 2013 Pew Study said that over one fifth of American Jewry identify as having “no religion.” Do you think Ask Big Questions can combat this trend?

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet, but we feel strongly that this initiate will help enrich Jewish education on campus and beyond. Schools, camps and synagogues have already been asking us to share our curriculum. When students start answering questions for themselves, they become invested in the conversation. I always say that the first miracle in Exodus is that Moses stopped to look at the burning bush. We’re fighting the same battle on campus. If we can make students just stop for a moment and look at what we’re doing, the questions will answer themselves.


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