Every Wednesday evening, I leave class, walking past the neo-Gothic, ivy-covered library and out to Sheridan Road. I cross Sheridan and head half a block west, the cold breeze of Lake Michigan and the busy hive of campus behind me.
I buzz and enter Northwestern Hillel, strolling past the main lobby and down a flight of stairs. I drop my backpack in the corner and wait for 12 other students to file in. We chat, grabbing dinner before settling in a circle. For the next hour and a half, we’ll share a bit about ourselves in pairs and as a group, listening and laughing as we grapple with texts as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This fall, I’m participating in the Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF) at Northwestern University. JLF is a seminar program for college students launched in 2007 at the NYU Bronfman Center Hillel. It has since been rolled out on campuses across the country, and there are now three different JLF curricula, each designed to prompt students to tackle questions of life and identity through a distinctly Jewish lens.
I spoke with Arielle Braude, the director of JLF at Hillel International, who attributes part of the success of the program to the intentionality of its setting. “If we set it up as a space that is really sacred, it invites intimacy and a level of sharing that feels different and beautiful,” she said. “That’s where community begins.”
Braude emphasized that the JLF curriculum is designed to sweep students into a kehillah, a community of Jewish friends and mentors, a community to “do Jewish” with.
Throughout my time at Northwestern, I often felt intimidated by the prospect of walking into Jewish spaces alone for Friday-night dinners or High Holiday services. I have slowly come to enjoy meeting new people through these experiences, but it’s never easy. According to Braude, JLF is built to engage students who are “lower to moderately” engaged with Hillel and to ease the friction students often associate with navigating Jewish life on campus.
When interviewing and selecting applicants, Natalie Dibo, director of engagement and one of two JLF facilitators at Northwestern Hillel, looks to curate a group of fellows from different corners of campus. Because the group of students transcends any one social enclave, Dibo said, they are encouraged to show up as themselves.
Rachel Hillman, Northwestern Hillel’s assistant director and Dibo’s JLF co-facilitator, launched the first cohort at Northwestern last winter. Although she was uncertain about how the program would land, she appreciated its adaptability. “It was a curriculum that you could adjust as you needed,” Hillman said. “We don’t have to be making source sheets, but we’re able to bring our own flair to it.”
She also added that JLF is a uniquely relaxed space for students to think critically about texts beyond the classroom. “Northwestern students are nerds, and by doing learning once a week that has no homework, you get to work your brain and have cool conversations,” she said.
I don’t always find the texts we read in JLF to be compelling. Sometimes, the ethical maxims of a particular section of Pirkei Avot feel hopelessly dated, nebulous or flat. But I love the unexpected twists and turns of our conversations, like when a Rashi quote leads to discussion about the social pressures of Saturday tailgates or the importance of truth in friendship or that one movie with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams (“Disobedience,” a stellar film). The discussion questions we address as a group are loose enough to accommodate and encourage this kind of meandering exploration, allowing us to connect ancient texts to our own lives.
David Silverman, a senior at Northwestern, was skeptical when he decided to participate in the program as a fellow last spring. Initially wary it would be “another Sunday school situation,” Silverman was surprised by the relaxed, open atmosphere of JLF. “There’s always been things that try to get Jewish young people together, that’s not new,” he said. “It’s new to me to have something that really doesn’t feel like it has an agenda.”
He decided to return to help lead sessions as an intern for this fall’s cohort. “It didn’t feel like the material was so central that I couldn’t do it again,” he said. “It’s more about the conversation and what comes out of the material. This hour and a half on Wednesdays is extremely cathartic for me.”
A few weeks ago, as part of JLF’s session about Jewish community and lifestyle choices, we discussed the oft-cited 2013 Pew Research Center report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” According to the survey, less than a third of Jews believe being part of a Jewish community is the defining component of being Jewish, and only 19 percent of Jews believe practicing Jewish law is central to Jewish identity. These statistics sent shockwaves throughout the American Jewish community when they were first published, alarming many older Jews who feared the next generation would mark the end of Jewish life as we know it.
After spending nearly nine weeks reflecting on my own Jewish identity with my peers in JLF, I’m not too concerned. During JLF seminar sessions across the country, students are taking part in the age-old Jewish practice of probing the great mysteries of life by examining and questioning the texts we’ve been given. Jewish life isn’t dying, it’s changing. Programs like JLF provide a blueprint for breathing life into tradition and recontextualizing core Jewish thought. As I prepare to leave the relative bliss of collegiate life, I know I will carry my JLF experience with me. I don’t know where and when I will find a kehillah, but I look forward to shaping it.
Amanda Gordon is a senior at Northwestern University.