Networking Millenials Through Peer Engagement

It’s all about Connection

Within the last decade, we’ve heard that young people didn’t care enough, that they would not engage, that they were abandoning our institutions. To overcome a widespread perception that Hillels were “uncool” and “cliquish,” and to involve the many students who were not attending official Hillel events, we sought to go beyond clichés, to understand this population and to build ways of reaching today’s students on their terms. Not surprisingly, we discovered that Jewish students today, no less than in the past, want to be involved and can be engaged to take part in Jewish campus life. Although college students may be on their smartphones all day, we’ve learned that getting to know each one in person is the only way to reach them.

Today, building one-on-one relationships is at the core of Hillel’s strategy around the world. Our Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (CEI) uses upperclassmen as student interns to build relationships with freshmen interns. CEI has transformed Jewish life at the schools that host it. The Hillel is no longer seen as appealing only to the very committed Jews; many more students are getting involved. The results are so dramatic that Hillel leadership has changed the organization’s basic approach to all its engagement efforts, including those with alumni, donors and local Hillel boards.

The essence of Hillel’s strategy is identifying a cohort of peer-engagers charged with building relationships with other students and connecting them to Jewish life. Typically, on campuses that employ this strategy, 12 interns are hired to each build 60 relationships, reaching over 700 of their peers annually. The right relationship is everything; in order to have an impact on students or to reach them you have to engage them first. We aspire to know every Jewish student.

The Super Connectors on Campus

Local Hillels select engagement interns who are “super connectors,” students who already have large social networks. They have not been involved in Hillel and have the ability to reach students that the institutional world has been unable to reach. The interns build relationships with Jewish students and connect them with one another as well as with Jewish life on campus, whether it be a Jewish book group or Shabbat dinner in a dorm room or a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. The interns get to know students personally, so they can point them to the opportunities that are right for them. At the same time, Hillel provides Jewish enrichment and learning for the interns, advancing their own Jewish journeys.

Our students (even those previously uninvolved in Jewish life) represent an extraordinary underutilized asset. Mobilizing them as interns and teaching them how to build their own networks has enabled Hillel to dramatically increase its reach and what it is able to achieve. The share of college students involved in Hillel rose from one third in 2005 to 45 percent in 2012, and over 57 percent of Jewish students report Hillel has impacted their personal and Jewish growth.

The interns help students create their own Jewish experiences and activities with their friends. Students of the millennial generation see themselves as unique individuals who want to tailor activities to their individual interests and be able to do them with their friends. Jewish meaning can be found in many untraditional ways, in order to spark students’ interest in Jewish life. And established relationships with fellow Jewish students help keep them engaged.

Jennifer Zwilling, associate vice president of student engagement, explains that “while we didn’t set out to hire engagement interns who were day school alumni—our goal was to reach the less educated—we actually found that several day school alumni have made excellent interns. CEI has created an opportunity for them to claim Judaism on their own terms, and has provided a new kind of entry point for those who otherwise may have checked out of Jewish life during college.”

Ultimately, we cannot expect young people to become future Jewish leaders unless we teach them these relationship-building skills. This is true for day school students too.

Data Driven Organization

To quantify the breadth and reach of the engagement program, interns keep track of the background of the students in their network and of their subsequent activities and Jewish growth by using Hillel’s own relationship-management software. The importance of being a data-driven organization cannot be underestimated. Rather than focus on the number of people who attend an event, the interns measure how students are impacted by their experiences.

As it turns out, essential discussions about Jewish issues are what really propel college students to grow and evolve. Learning in a collaborative way seems to have a real effect on students. As the program grows, the model is modified based on best practices across different campuses. For example, on several campuses, engagement interns are now joined by Jewish educators, most of them rabbis, who are charged with building their own relationships with students and serving as mentors and role models. The educators approach students in a similar way as the interns do, presenting Jewish learning in a way that is highly personalized.

These educators engage in meaningful conversations with students and offer Jewish wisdom that is directly relevant to the personal issues or questions the students are currently working through. The traditional view of a student as an empty glass that the teacher needs to fill is no longer a relevant model. Finding educators who enjoy learning with the students to make Jewish knowledge and wisdom relevant to college students has been a key driver to the program’s growth and success.

Unexpected Transformation

While Hillel’s strategy didn’t focus on a greater number of students attending Shabbat dinners at the building or attending a local movie with Jewish flavor, the local Hillel staff at the schools participating in the pilot project were pleasantly surprised and inspired to see lots of new faces. Hillel’s image on campus has greatly improved.

The interns themselves undergo a major transformation. Many former interns have said that they hadn’t realized that they could make a contribution to the Jewish world. The experience made them excited about Jewish things. They also found their ability to build networks fulfilling, both personally and professionally, and continued to network long after their internship ended.

Moreover, the pilot project has changed the way the Hillel campus staff see their own roles. Rather than merely planning lots of Hillel activities and working to engage Jewish students in them, they focus more on relationship-based engagement. This engagement is now integral to the way they train and supervise their interns, and the results of increased Jewish student engagement have been dramatic. Since the experiment began six years ago, Hillel has trained more than 1,200 interns who have established relationships with more than 63,000 students.

This fall, nearly 50 campuses will host peer-to-peer engagement projects, with senior Jewish educators on ten campuses. Hillel officials hope to eventually bring this approach to all its campuses.

Apply the Model across Jewish Communal Life

Outside of a Hillel context, this model could be tailored for use in Jewish day schools, synagogues or JCCs. The most critical step is to identify the super connectors (or those with the potential to be) who can be tasked to engage each of the target populations the organization wants to serve. Here are some steps a day school can take in adapting this model for alumni engagement.

Create a clear plan for what the alumni will be engaged to do once they have been reached.

Identify 2-4 “super connectors” from within each class of graduates—or within each major geography or social network where alumni are currently connected.

Develop an appropriate package of incentives and responsibilities, along with methods of gathering data.

Create a recruitment strategy to ensure the right candidates will apply for or be interested in the role.

Design a training plan and clear vision for the kind of enrichment that will be provided to ensure the engagers are equipped, inspired, and prepared to effectively reach their peers.

Provide incentives to the interns for their work. This could include defining the role as a paid internship or volunteer opportunity (there are trade-offs associated with each. Don’t underestimate the value of a token payment which can ensure greater accountability and commitment).

Adopt and Adapt the Approach

Hillel’s greatest hope is that many others will benefit from, adopt and adapt a version of this approach. Networks are an essential vehicle through which Jewish experiences, content and involvement will be proliferated for the next generation. By cultivating these skills and capabilities as foundational components of Jewish leadership, we have the possibility to create a Jewish world of talented and inspired young leaders who are prepared to fill vacuums of Jewish experience and involvement through their own relationship-building. We look forward to the next chapter of inspiring others to create ingenious ways to engage their peers Jewishly.♦

Graham Hoffman is vice president for strategy at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. He can be reached at

Abi Dauber Sterne is vice president for global Jewish experience at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. She can be reached at

Graham Hoffman and Abi Dauber Sterne
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Professional Leadership